A musical that spans 15 years sports a principal cast of 10 and attempts to recreate the 1832 Paris Uprising is going to have a lot of meat to it. And the big screen adaptation of the stage hit Les Misérables manages to weave it all together (in a nearly 3-hour cut). Performed almost entirely in song director Tom Hooper (Oscar-winner for The King’s Speech) sticks to source material while reinventing the movie musical with live performances. No lip syncing here — stars Hugh Jackman Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe belt their tunes with all the imperfection of real life. It’s a tactic that works wonders and at times falls completely flat. For that Les Mis is daring and sporadically electrifying but may leave purists wanting more.
After 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread Jean Valjean (Jackman) is released into a world that no longer has a place for him. As a convict he wears a marker of shame. It’s only after meeting a forgiving priest who gifts with a church’s silver and an alibi from the police does Valjean see a path to redemption. He rips up his parole papers and sets out to put “Jean Valjean” behind him. In his journey he becomes the owner of a factory meets a struggling woman Fantine (Hathaway) who sells her body to earn money for her daughter tracks down the young girl Cosette and helps people in need to live better lives. Les Mis has a large girth filled with plot and characters and Hooper keeps it all intact.
But it’s for better or worse. What works on stage doesn’t always click in on screen characters appear and reappearing without much explanation. Valjean’s former incarcerator Javert (Crowe) is always on his tail even when the parole-breaker hasn’t seen him in nearly a decade. When Valjean eventually makes his way to Paris the action of the film completely switches focus to a new set of characters: heartthrob rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) his band of protesting students and grownup versions of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Éponine (Samantha Barks). The cinematic treatment spotlights the show’s clunky construction — threads could have been snipped but who wants to be the guy that cut a number from Les Misérables?
With the breadth of drama going in the film there is still plenty of good to be found. Jackman delivers as Valjean a physically demanding part both in voice and presence. While not as adept at the gentler moments (with all the liberties taken with the on-set singing rarely does the musical soften and hush the performances) Jackman blasts Valjean’s many professions to godlike fanfare. Eddie Redmayne enlivens the part of Marius a thankless love-stricken part that the young actor deepens with ideas of war and friendship. And the talk of the town Anne Hathway lives up the hype: her single-shot rendition of “I Dream a Dream” shot up-close and personal is worth the price of admission alone.
Sadly the other half of the ensemble rarely live up the high expectations established early on. Crowe shines in the in-between moments of high drama but can’t land either of his two big numbers sticking to one note and draining the film of bravado. Almost the inverse is Barks who was cast from the West End production of Les Mis. While everyone else is in a movie she’s stuck in the stage production going big and showy when the movie needs subtlety the most. Much of the flaccid nature of the second act of the film is on Hooper whose bold unflinching close-ups are magical in the early portion of the movie and are relentless later on. He overdoses us with the style — “One Day More ” the number that closes Act I of the stage show is so lacking in the necessary spark that it’s hard to imagine another hour more of the movie.
Les Misérables is the definition of mixed bag and it’s due to an adherence to the show’s 30-year history. With an incredible cast vivid photography and booming sounds the film version needed more of a stamp to make it its own beast. “Who am I?” You’re just another Les Mis production.