You may emerge from Les Miserables feeling almost as battered and bruised as its characters: Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the wildly popular stage musical runs just under three hours and feels closer to four. So many stops are pulled out—each number trying to out-tear-jerk the last—that by the time the two-hour mark rolled around both my attention and my sympathies had begun to flag. That said, this is probably the best mounting of this material one can imagine, and fans of the stage version will no doubt be satisfied. An unapologetically big, un-subtle, high-pitched behemoth of a show, Les Mis requires as excessive and bombastic a treatment as it’s been given here. With its frenetic camerawork and overwrought performances, it’s more than a little vulgar, but what other approach would be suitable for this material? Les Miserables doesn’t have the subtle embroidery of something by Sondheim; it calls for big, thick strokes, and Hooper and his cast lay them on well (though I’m still not convinced that Hooper knows what to do with his camera, which is rarely in the right place).
The best of the performers may be Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the desperate young mother driven to prostitution in an attempt to provide for her daughter. Her downright thrilling rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”—done in a single take, straight-forwardly filmed—is the high point of the entire film, and it may very well earn her an Oscar. (It helps that it comes about thirty minutes in, while the audience still has the energy to appreciate it.) Hathaway’s a capable, if not first-rate, singer, but she acts the song perfectly; it’s as if her character is thinking the words of the song as she sings them. It’s an example of how these simple but durable songs can effectively be brought to life by the right mixture of vocal ability and acting talent—both of which Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert seems to lack, unfortunately.
The heaviest burden falls to Hugh Jackman, who plays the long-suffering ex-con Jean Valjean with a fervent intensity. Unlike many of his fellow cast members, Jackman’s background is in musical theater, and yet his voice only occasionally rises to the demands of the part—most of the time it sounds nasal and thin, or else he employs a kind of sing-speech, a la Rex Harrison. The breathless, in-your-face quality of much of the singing is the result of much of its having been recorded live (apparently at Hooper’s insistence), and it does create a certain sense of immediacy that you don’t often see in movie musicals, which are usually dubbed in post-production. (One wonders, though, why such effort has been made to make Les Miserables seem “realistic.”) In the thankless young lover parts, Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are predictably bland. Better are Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, in deliciously cartoony roles that recall their work in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (2007). In these scenes, when it’s not being weighed down by too much turgidity, Les Miserables is an example of the movie musical at its most shamelessly—or shamefully—fun.