4 / 5 stars
Do you find yourself tittering like a schoolgirl when actors break into song in a movie — and they really mean it? If you’re one of those gigglers, you’ll waste your time checking out Tom Hooper’s version of the legendary Les Misérables. You won’t miss anything cinematically groundbreaking or history-making, as the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech marches loyally in step to the stage show. Every last actor sings every last word, hell and vocal talents be damned. At least that’s a decision sure to appease the Les Mis fanatics, right? But those who’ve been awaiting this film with literally bated breath are also destined to pick apart nearly every note and casting decision. So who is most likely to embrace this version of Les Misérables? The casual fans of the show, who’ve seen it once or twice, enjoy the story and music, and won’t feel assaulted by big decisions or insulted by tiny details. A group that includes yours truly, as a point of full disclosure. (Click on the movie poster for a larger version.)
Hooper’s faithful adaptation suffers its bumps and bruises throughout its sizable running time, but has a collection of stirring moments that overwhelm the pain. At first appearances, it doesn’t seem that will be the case: As imprisoned Jean Valjean (a phenomenally confident Hugh Jackman) and his ilk perform slave labor at the hands of lawman Javert (Russell Crowe, fine and well-invested), it’s difficult to decipher the lyrics of the opening number, and less interested viewers may check out early. But as our two male leads come face to face at the song’s end, the lyrics and their meaning are clearer, Valjean and Javert addressing their rivalry.
While Jackman sinks his teeth into the role of the reformed ex-con, and Crowe is strong and serviceable as Javert (if you judge him only by his singing skills, you miss the point), one particular performance wholly elevates the entire first half of the film.
As the tragic single mother, Fantine, Anne Hathaway will have women weeping and impressionable men on their knees. Heavily theatrical productions such as Les Mis do invite such hyperbole, but this is barely an exaggeration. Hathaway’s unexpected emotional purging during the number “I Dreamed A Dream” is a masterwork of vocal performance for a movie, the actress standing as the sole cast member not just “performing,” but film acting. There’s a difference, and Hooper’s much-talked-about (okay, overly talked-about) decision to have the actors sing live during production works here. The effects of Hathaway’s contribution linger in the film — it’s literally breathtaking — and her appearance in the final act evokes emotions held in check through the film’s beefier middle. (Click on the movie poster for a larger version.)
On the opposite end of the singing spectrum is Amanda Seyfried as the teenage Cosette. If you never thought you’d long for the miserably misguided Mamma Mia!, Seyfried’s warbly tones will change your mind. Her uncontrolled crackling lends a touch of reality, just as Crowe’s limited range does, but it quickly takes over any other attention her scenes demand.
When Les Mis keeps its focus on pairs of characters — Valjean and Javert, Valjean and Cosette, the thieving hooligans played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter — Hooper and the film excel. As the story heads toward its final act of lost love and street-level revolt, things stay exciting but get messy. Hooper has a tough time understanding how to shoot a workable rhythm of close-ups and wide shots, and a once-solid Les Misérables starts to feel inconsistent. The set design even lacks a connectivity, the exteriors sometimes looking like locations, and other times feeling artificial and stagy.
These might not be forgivable flaws in another genre but, hey, when everybody’s singing you reassess what’s important in a film. In all, Les Misérables is a rewarding musical movie. Its sweeping orchestrations and memorable acting make those longer sequences feel shorter, make the overly saccharine stuff not too sticky.