My first introduction to “Les Misérables,” the epic, schmaltzy musical loosely based on the Victor Hugo novel, was the most recent New York production in 2006. While the revolving barricade was certainly a sight to see, it was largely an unmemorable, not terribly affecting experience, which is why I came into Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation with relatively low expectations.
What I got instead was an immersive and mostly captivating film – one that is not afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve and milk your tear glands for all they’re worth. I may not have been a blubbering, sobbing mess – which there were plenty of in my particular screening – but I left feeling thoroughly and genuinely moved.
A sweeping, sung-through tale of 19th-century French peasants and revolutionaries, “Les Misérables” tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a tortured soul who serves time for stealing a loaf of bread and is whisked into a cat-and-mouse chase spanning decades by the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Jackman effectively carries the weight of the movie on his shoulders and truly makes you believe each word he sings with his strong baritone and tear-swollen eyes. Crowe does not fare quite as well and bogs down his scenes with a heady, rock voice that seems sorely out of a place in this pop-opera score.
The film’s highlight is without a doubt the heartbreaking Anne Hathaway, whose highly publicized weight loss and dramatic haircut have nearly overshadowed what people should really be talking about: her spectacular performance. As a woman forced into prostitution in order to support her child, Hathaway knocks it out of the park with her rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream,” which is easily one of the rawest, most devastating scenes on-screen this year. Agonizing but exquisite, Hathaway should easily walk away with a well-deserved Oscar statuette come February.
The other supporting performances are fine but mostly unremarkable. Newcomer Samantha Barks makes a strong impression in the small but pivotal role of Éponine, and “My Week With Marilyn”-star Eddie Redmayne provides a stirring rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” (although his voice is irritatingly reminiscent of Kermit the Frog). Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the wily Thénardiers are decent comic relief, but add nothing substantial to the film itself and often slow down the action.
Critics have been particularly nasty when it comes to Hooper’s use of extreme close-ups, a complaint that I found to be almost entirely unwarranted. Aside from a few unflattering shots (Do we really need to frame Crowe’s face from his eyebrows to his lips as he sings?), shoving the camera in each actor’s face allows the audience to really sense the emotion that I found absent from the stage show. Hooper also never focuses on one individual for too long, and keeps the film constantly moving with soaring pans of students atop the barricade and sprawling shots of the Paris skyline. Although many buildings look like set pieces rather than actual abodes, “Les Misérables” effectively immerses us in this expansive world, which is only made more authentic by the decision to have the actors sing live on-set.
Any faults with the material should be blamed on the stage show itself, with some unnecessary characters (the Thénardiers), drawn-out songs (“Bring Him Home,” in a unusually mediocre rendition by Jackman), and more than a few feeble plot points (Can Javert just get over himself and stop chasing Jean Valjean?). As an adaptation of the musical, though, Hooper has done a perfectly fine job with “Les Misérables.” The film is all melodramatic songs, lavish costumes and towering sets, and aspires to be nothing more than a nearly three-hour tug at the heartstrings.
It may not be the enormous award-winner that was Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” a short two years ago, but “Les Misérables” is far more ambitious, less predictable and arguably more enjoyable. It may be imperfect, but it’s guaranteed to connect with audiences one tattered, damp, French hankie at a time.