|Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean and Anne Hathaway stars as Fantine in 'Les Miserables.'
Les Miserables is good, not great. It is beautiful, not spectacular. It is sung decently enough, with just one thrilling breakout number.
That would be acceptable and perhaps even satisfying, if the stakes were not so high. But, when a musical swaggers in with the legendary status of Les Miserables, when it arrives with such Oscar buzz, when it has 25 years of development hell in its history and finally succeeds, when it boasts an all-star cast uniquely singing everything live for each shot, we expected more. A lot more.
Les Miserables is Tom Hooper's official adaptation of the English-language musical, which dates back to a French concept album and performance run in 1980.
By 1985, Cats producer Cameron Mackintosh powered the debut of the full-blown English-language musical in London's West End. The struggle to adapt it into a film soon began.
Finally, here it is, the latest incarnation of French poet-novelist Victor Hugo's literary masterpiece. Hugh Jackman is featured as heroic Jean Valjean, an 18th century French peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Russell Crowe is Javert, the tyrannical police official who obsesses over Valjean after he disappears into a new identity while on parole. Anne Hathaway is Fantine, the tragic woman Valjean befriends. Amanda Seyfried is the grown Cosette, Fantine's orphaned child, whom Valjean lovingly raises. Eddie Redmayne is the student revolutionary Cosette suddenly loves, igniting the last chapter in Valjean's rise to nobility and spiritual freedom. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are comic relief, with Samantha Barks a striking Eponine and Daniel Huttlestone a memorable boy-hero Gavroche. The entire enterprise is a homage to selfless humanism vs. soulless repression.
Let's admit one thing about movie musicals: They work differently on screen than in person. Sing-through musicals especially -- with actors telling the story in song lyrics -- require a willing suspension of disbelief. Hooper (of The King's Speech fame) tries to give us more to look at by "opening up" the setting.
The opening sequence, for example, shows Valjean on his release day. He is one among thousands of prisoners forced to pull on ropes to haul in a capsized ship. Another scene features Valjean alone, hungry and hiking across a snowy mountain slope to his new life. These are pure cinema scenes.
Jackman is a stalwart Valjean. He delivers on the acting, even in his singing. But he obviously lacks the vocal range of Colm Wilkinson, the most celebrated on-stage Valjean. Incidentally, Wilkinson makes a cameo as the bishop whose caring puts Valjean on the path to greater good. As Javert, Crowe has the attitude, the arrogance. But his singing seems forced, even desperate. So the decades-long struggle between two adversaries is out-of-balance.
Hathaway owns the showcase number. When she sings I Dreamed a Dream, it is a shattering moment of stunning perfection. Hathaway gathers together angst, despair, tragedy, tenderness and longing, letting us see the face of lost innocence. If you don't sob in sympathy, you may not be human.
Unfortunately, that sequence does stand alone. No other scene in the filmed musical even comes close to having this emotional impact. As a result, the legendary musical version of Les Miserables is now an interesting but rarely enthralling film.
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