After countless adaptations of Victor Hugo's nineteenth century politically charged tale, Les Misérables, Hollywood (by way of director Tom Hooper) has revamped the classic once more, giving it an uber glamorized look despite its dismal themes.
Unlike more recent movie musicals, the story of Les Misérables is strictly told in song. There are no times when the actors stop their ballad mid lyric and start speaking in dialogue. In other words, this variation is much like the beloved stage production, so prepare yourselves if you're not into 2.5-hour theatrical concerts.
But thankfully the cast (minus Russell Crowe, we'll get to him in a bit) can certainly hold a note. It's like they're all competing against each other for that last vacant spot on "American Idol." Hugh Jackman, who's critically acclaimed for his Broadway work in productions like "The Boy from Oz," finally sheds his Wolverine image in this heart-rending performance as Jean Valjean, an impoverished Frenchman who steals a loaf a bread for his starving sister and is sent to jail. After escaping prison several times, which leads to a lengthier sentence, he spends the remainder of the movie (and his life) on the run from ruthless detective Javert (Crowe) and caring for Cosette, an orphan he meets on his laborious odyssey that sparks a revolutionary battle between the armored and tattered-clothed.
The film moves rather swiftly through time, roughly thirty years or so, which might be difficult for viewers who are unfamiliar with the story. Perhaps the smaller details about Valjean's journey were irrelevant for this big screen adventure (which is already running long), but those significant events really help build character and emotional investment from the viewers. So to negate them here seems like a rather odd decision for such a passionate story.
But Anne Hathaway's affecting portrayal of Fantine, a peasant young woman forced to sell her hair, teeth and her pride to provide for her daughter, Cosette, is as tender as it is the exact pivot the film needed to steer it back in the right direction. With Jackman's woefully heroic portrayal being the centerpiece of the film, the flamboyant song and dance numbers and Crowe's weaker performance often had it spinning in a circle on its own.
And now this brings us to Crowe and the other supporting performances in the film. In theory, Crowe seems like he would be the perfect current actor to bring to life Javert--a brooding, relentless, tortured soul in his own right. But put to music, his performance is swallowed whole. The core is still there, but Crowe is just not the right actor for this kind of musical adaptation. And that is a real shame.
On the other hand, Samantha Barks, who reprises her role as Éponine from the stage production, delivers one of the stand out performances in the film. She is introduced about an hour into the story as the ill-fated admirer of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a character that has all the potential to be melodramatic and maudlin but with Barks' portrayal she becomes the person who, like Valjean, embodies the film's most paramount themes.
With a cast this size, it's easy to see how a few characters would appear thrown frivolously throughout the story purely for entertainment value on the big screen as opposed to the other mediums. For instance, the villainous Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen), who were prominent figures in the book, are reduced to comic relief in the movie. This is a welcomed shift in tone, but lessens their impact to the story, specifically how it influences Fantine and her daughter. While Carter and Bonham give fine performances that are entertaining to watch, a more judiciously written arc provided by William Nicholson (Gladiator) would have served them well.
The poignant romantic element in the movie, the one which balances the overwhelming layer of drab and sadness, belongs to Marius and Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried). Their youthful optimism and passion for each other and the betterment of their depleted world adds a much needed nuance. Redmayne is steadily inexpressive throughout the movie which impedes his performance, but Seyfried delivers one of the best of her career. Since her character is central to the plot, Seyyfried's less colorful portrayal may fall under the radar in this grandiose production but is effectively poised.
Les Misérables is an ambitious effort from Hooper, who impressed the academy with his last film The King's Speech. The director clearly has an affinity for illuminating the civic story, which he takes to a fantastical level in this film as he submerges the audience into this forgotten world of sub-level humanity. Driving an emotional dagger straight through the audience, he often employs extreme profile shots of each cast member as they deliver their most wistful prose. While it isn't a consummate movie, Les Misérables will stir a younger generation of fans with its glitz and charm and perhaps pioneer a new style of movie musicals.
Les Misérables opens in theaters December 25th.