One has to admire the ambition of Les Misérables, the through-sung play that's now a big-screen musical. A condensation of Victor Hugo's 1862 epic novel, the musical by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel achieved enormous popular appeal with its soaring melodies and grasping melodrama. But it's equally true that Les Misérables has never been known for its subtlety, its storytelling in all-caps and exclamation points, and its music thunderously repetitive. None of this changes, exactly, in the film adaptation helmed by Tom Hooper, Oscar winning director of The King's Speech. And like so many movie musicals, this one's a mixed bag of suitable and not-so-suitable choices. On balance, though, it's about as compelling a screen version of Les Mis as we have any right to expect.
Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a parole violator, in 19th Century France, who lifts himself out of poverty and decrepitude but lives in fear of discovery by former jailer Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). From his new position of power as a factory owner, Valjean becomes entangled in the fortunes of one of his workers, despairing single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and Valjean begins to feel responsible for the woman and her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
The story sprawls its way into the Paris Uprising of 1832—a student-fueled rebellion against the French monarchy—and a sort of love triangle, between Cosette (now Amanda Seyfried), student revolutionary Marius (Tony winner Eddie Redmayne), and his beggarly confidant Éponine (Samantha Barks, reprising the role she's played on stage). Throw in street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) and comic relief in the devious Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, the latter unfortunately channeling Adam Sandler), and you have yourself a show.
Jackman is perhaps the only sensible choice to headline the picture, and though he's able enough, his performance typically feels calculated. The same could be said for Hathaway, who's given an Oscar-savvy showcase in her single-take performance of über-emotive aria "I Dreamed a Dream." Hooper's best choice is also his riskiest gambit: by recording all the vocals live (rather than the standard practice of having the actors lip-sync), he gets more vital acting, with intentionally raggedy vocals lending a palpable verisimilitude.
But for my money, best acting honors go to Crowe, Redmayne, and Barks, who seem most "in the moment." Crowe suffers from some wobbly diction, but his performance is always emotionally resonant, while Barks knocks "On My Own" out of the park (I'll admit it: I got chills), and Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) busts out with a surprisingly rich tenor voice—who knew?—that never once feels affected.
Hooper maximizes his budget to make Les Misérables look as big as can be, and occasionally he manages an ingenious small touch amidst the bombast (like seamstresses tugging needles on the beat). But Hooper also shoots himself in the foot by so insistently shooting in wide-angle close-ups. The play is "in your face" enough as it is: with the camera swooping in so often, I was sure it was going to smack an actor in the forehead. Pop a dramamine and you'll be fine.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]