by Barry Wurst II
Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables has been made into a movie six times before, but this is the first adaptation of the smash 1985 musical, which is one of the most celebrated, longest running productions in Broadway’s history. Directed by Tom Hooper, who previously helmed The King’s Speech and presenting itself as the biggest epic holiday movie not featuring hobbits, this is best suited for longtime fans of the musical, of which I am not. Yet, even Les Miz die hards might notice that something is truly missing.
Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a criminal being forever pursued by the tireless officer Javert (Russell Crowe), who reinvents himself as a respectable businessman. Valjean takes pity on a battered prostitute (Anne Hathway) who works at his mill, and makes her a lifetime promise to protect her daughter. This seals Valjean’s fate as a man in seeking redemption in the form of caring for others, though Javert’s persistence in catching him never wavers, even once the French Revolution begins.
It never fully transcends its theater origins, as the staging of many scenes, particularly the very theatrical placement of the actors on the large, Dickensian sets, remind you you’re watching a filmed musical. The story is so rushed, we don’t get to know many of the supporting characters or care about them. During the big wartime finale (which finally succeeds in giving a claustrophobic film a sense of scale), a number of characters die but you won’t have the emotional response the filmmakers intended.
Much has been made of how the songs were recorded live on the set, but this presents mixed results. The little seen musicals The Fantasticks and At Long Last Love both did this first decades ago and had slightly better success–some of the lines are unintelligible: as the actors are emoting so much, they occasionally mumble.
Everyone in the star-studded cast is an exceptional singer, though not everyone is well chosen for their roles. Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful and her scenes are so wrenching, she is simply the best part about the movie. When her character, which is a small, supporting role, exits the story, her loss is felt for the remainder of the two and a half hour running time.
Jackman conveys the humanity of his character and his Broadway chops come across, though he has given better performances. Crowe’s bellowing, exceptionally strong vocals are a nice surprise, but his singing is better than his acting; his character is supposed to appear possessed with catching Valjean but his stiff, inexpressive acting makes Javert seem mostly annoyed.
Amanda Seyfried is stunningly good in the key role of Cosette but the love triangle between her character, Marius and Eponine is one of the numerous subplots that never connect, particularly due to Samantha Bark’s unimpressive turn as Eponine. Sascha Baron Cohen’s comic instincts serve him well as Fagen-like creep but he and Helena Bonham Carter (who’s repeating herself here) play characters who feel like an intrusion, rather than a comic interlude who belong in this story.
The music is often lovely, though producer Cameron Mackintosh’s following Broadway musical, Miss Saigon, has similar themes and characters and is superior in every way. Perhaps this is the best filmed version of the Broadway show one could make but the essence of Hugo’s story and the haunting quality of his characters are muted. Even the truncated but riveting 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush had better focus and dramatic heft than this.
Hathaway and some beautiful songs are the reason to see this but the stage version is likely the preferred, more impactful experience. A Les Miz-ed opportunity.
Rated PG-13/157 Min.