Tom Hooper's (The King's Speech) extravagant movie adaptation of the long-running musical version of Victor Hugo's tale of the haves and the have-nots, is systematically big, loud, splashy, and melodramatic—exactly what it should be, all things considered. Boasting big-budget opulence and a star-studded cast, it doesn't radically re-interpret Les Misérables, but it does take advantage of some of the dramatic opportunities only cinema can provide.
Hooper keeps his camera active, often shooting in close-up and long takes, and the sprawling CGI-rendered cityscapes of a 19th-century Paris give an epic scope beyond that of the stage. However, it's Hooper's decision to have his actors sing live on camera (opposed to the standard lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks) that brings emotion and intimacy to the movie (the musical has music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, book by Alain Boublil and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; William Nicholson adapted the screenplay).
For many of us, that means a chance to finally see Broadway veteran Hugh Jackman let loose his vocal talents, and as the heroic ex-con turned benevolent father-figure Jean Valjean, and he easily dominates the film. Anne Hathaway also scores points with her raw performance as the ill-fated Fantine, especially during the usually moribund number "I Dreamed a Dream.” Many of the youngsters also deliver, especially Samantha Barks as Eponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, who squarely nails "Red and Black.”
Sadly, it's all in the service of overwrought melodrama amplified by being transferred from stage to screen.
Poor Russell Crowe, on the other hand, fares less well as the implacable Inspector Javert who relentlessly hunts Valjean like an Gallic Terminator. Granted, Crowe has sung in bands for years, but he's fighting above his weight level here; Les Misérables is a musical that straddles the line into the world of opera, and Crowe is unsuited for the rigors of near-constant singing. He seems stiff, his voice is often flat, and he sometimes looks like he's battling stage fright. It's a bummer, because it's the sort of role he would have nailed dead in a standard production, and it's a missed-opportunity for playing him against Jackman.
Still, he comes across better than Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter, who ham it up big-time in the already hammy roles of the odious, thieving innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier. They play the parts in broad and garish strokes, but the humor falls flat; if you couldn't tolerate them in Sweeney Todd, you won't find much to like here.
Hooper seems overcome by Les Mis' lack of subtlety, or perhaps he just felt obliged to run with it. True, it's always been a three-boxes-of-tissues tearjerker, but Hooper seems to go out of his way to hammer the point home, ignoring that in movie theaters there are no rafters that need playing to and shooting every single aria with the emotional volume cranked up to 11. It works during Hathaway's aforementioned solo and Barks' performance of "On My Own"; the rest of the time it amounts to an aural mugging.
◊ Les Misérables opens in theaters everywhere on Christmas Day. It runs two hours and 37 minutes, and is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
◊Here's an extended trailer for the film: