Les Misérables grabs you by the lapels from the first moment and never lets you go. In this respect it is little different from the stage musical from which it derives—and not so different from the Victor Hugo novel from which the stage musical derives. How you respond to its unabashed histrionics will surely determine how you feel about Les Misérables the movie, as it has determined how readers have felt about Hugo’s endless, garrulous, powerful, unbelievably tiresome novel since its publication in 1862, and how theatrical audiences have felt about the extremely vulgar but undeniably well-directed show since its debut in London in 1985.
The epic story of the moral salvation of the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his efforts to do good works even as he is being relentlessly pursued by the just but unmerciful Inspector Javert, Les Misérables is strangely irresistible in all its forms. The novel is like being told a juicy story by your most insanely longwinded but lovable relative, while the stage show is distinguished primarily by its famous turntable set that spins so frequently it hypnotizes you into ignoring the fact that the musical score by Claude-Michel Schönberg is pretty lousy.
That’s not the case with the movie, which puts the musical score front and center. Indeed, director Tom Hooper is so dedicated to the score and the performers who sing it that he jams you into their faces and practically takes you down their throats so you can see their uvulae. This works far better than I would have expected, given that there are exactly three good songs in Les Misérables—and it’s two-and-a-half hours of nonstop singing.
The thing is, the story is so compelling you can’t fail to become engrossed in it, even if you are already familiar with it. And Hooper’s bombast is entirely organic, because there is no more bombastic novel in all of literature than Les Misérables. The movie is also astonishingly beautiful to look at—the art direction, costuming, and photography are beyond criticism—and so when you get a little overwhelmed by being yelled at, you can pass the time by looking at the sets.
Hooper would have been up the creek if he had not cast the film well, but he has—with three standouts. Pity poor Hugh Jackman, who plays Valjean; in any other year he would win an Oscar but has no chance against Daniel Day-Lewis’s Abe Lincoln. Jackman, best known for his snarling turn as a wolf-like mutant in the X-Men movies, first hit it big on the London stage in a revival of Oklahoma! and he will surely stun audiences with the power of his voice and the careworn quality he displays as his noble character ages.
Anne Hathaway is likely to win an Oscar for her brief and unforgettable turn as Fantine, the most miserable of the miserables, to whom almost everything remotely awful that can happen to a person happens. She has the best song—“I Dreamed a Dream”—and if she were on stage singing it, she’d get a standing ovation. The surprise of the cast is the unknown Samantha Barks, who came third in a British singing competition a few years ago and scored the part of the sad and brave Éponine, who has the second-best song, “On My Own.” Sacha Baron Cohen provides a few moments of blessed comic relief as the greedy innkeeper Thénardier, the subject of the theoretically rollicking but not all that amusing in actuality “Master of the House.”
British actor Eddie Redmayne shows an impressive set of pipes and a disturbing number of freckles as Marius, the rich boy turned revolutionary. His performance displays the weakness of Hooper’s in-your-face style and decision to record the performers as they’re singing rather than having them lip-sync to a prerecorded track, which is what is usually done with musicals. Redmayne is one of those chin-trembles-as-he-sings guys, and since he’s singing live, the chin is always moving, and you can’t take your eyes off it, and it’s very annoying.
Then there are the not-so-good performances. Amanda Seyfried, who was charming as the ingénue in the film version of Mamma Mia!, is screechily awful as Valjean’s foundling daughter Cosette. Russell Crowe—who has never before given anything less than a stellar performance—should have been perfect casting as Javert, especially since he is known for fronting his own rock band. But I guess there’s a reason we’ve never heard that band, because Crowe cannot sing and he sounds more like a shofar than a human being.