Movie Review: “Les Miserables”

I wish so very much that I could say “Les Miserables” is a great film.

Considering its mass appeal as one of the longest-running stage musicals of all time, this big-screen adaptation was perhaps inevitable. The music is widely considered to be unrivaled by any other show before or since and has captivated millions of people for nearly three decades. While there are undeniable moments of greatness in this cinematic translation, much of the show’s vitality has been lost along the way, and under the direction of Tom Hooper, “Les Miserables” compromises the essence of its source material at every turn with crippling creative choices and baffling camera work.

One of the great pleasures of “Les Miserables” on stage is its perfect balance of grandeur and intimacy. Foregoing the opportunity to show off what is clearly a remarkable production design, Hooper strips away all of the grandeur by shooting just about every song for the entire first half in extreme close-up. This force feeds the intimacy to the audience, which is frustrating considering that it already comes through via the actors’ performances. As Fantine, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heart-stopping, but Hooper gives her nothing to do but sit there as the camera remains zoomed in on her face for the duration. His intention is to make the audience feel Fantine’s pain; but the music already does that and it undermines Hathaway’s incredible performance.

Those unfamiliar with the story of “Les Miserables” should know that nearly the entire narrative is sung, although more so on stage than it is here. That narrative structure for the most part stays intact but, tragically, the essential structure of the music is sometimes sacrificed for no apparent reason. Key lyrics are rearranged, placed out of context and rhythm or excised altogether. New, less effective lines are added here and there, and there is even a song written for the movie that works against the recurring musical motif and doesn’t fit. All the singing was captured live during filming, but that isn’t as effective as it sounds because the vocals are oddly disconnected from the orchestrations accompanying them.

Hugh Jackman is a serviceable Valjean most of the time, but is clearly straining his vocal range for vital sections. “Bring Him Home” should be a delicate and breathless moment, but his vocal imperfections dilute the emotion. As the rigid Police Inspector Javert, Russell Crowe is, well, rigid. His tonal quality is not suited to this type of music, but when he stays away from an upper register, he is surprisingly capable at bellowing lower notes. The “Master of the House” sequence with Thenardiere (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter) is memorable for all the wrong reasons because Cohen chooses to channel all of his previous movie characters into the role and it deflates Thenardier’s seediness.

Amanda Seyfried is delightful as Cosette and her duets with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) are a faithful highlight; and Aaron Tveit makes for a phenomenal Enjolras, a revolutionary who is provided some of the most impactful lyrics and melodies. Really, the entire second half is truly exceptional and on par with the best stage versions and Hooper relents on the close-ups to show more of the production and visual palette. The barricade sequence, however, is strangely subdued here and feels almost inconsequential to the rest of the main narrative. That qualm aside, the music is more consistently left intact and the finale is emotional and resonant.

There will be longtime fans of “Les Miserables” that love this version and newcomers could do far worse. Still, at two hours, 37 minutes, it should not take over an hour to warm up to it. Perhaps, like “Phantom of the Opera,” this is a show that simply belongs on the stage. Or perhaps it is my great love of “Les Miserables” that had me expecting a truly great movie adaptation. Alas, this isn’t the movie. If you look closely, you’ll see the original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, show up as a compassionate Bishop. Brief as the part is, believe me when I say that the movie sorely needs him.

2.5 stars out of four.