MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Les Miserables’

Perfect on paper, on-screen production gets lost in translation

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Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of joyful fans? It is the music of a people who, for the past 27 years, have helped “Les Miserables” become one of the most successful musicals of all time, and who finally this Christmas can see a cinematic adaptation of their beloved, song-powered show.

These legions of fans will walk into theaters with high expectations. Here’s a movie that promises all the riveting drama, timeless characters and unforgettable melodies of the stage production, combined with a big budget, big stars and big filmmaking talent, all wrapped up in a neat $12 package. (Less than the cost of a souvenir Broadway program!)

Ultimately, though, this Christmas present isn’t the shiniest under the tree — don’t be misled by all the early buzz and Oscar talk. “Les Mis” is a good movie with some great performances and some beautiful moments and, sigh, those amazing songs that get stuck in your head for days. But it just doesn’t hit all the high notes or pack the emotional punch of the stage show — or even the anniversary concerts.

As written by Victor Hugo 150 years ago and re-imagined for the stage in the 1980s, “Les Miserables” is a sprawling tale of revolution and redemption that follows dozens of characters across two decades in volatile 19th-century France. What helps sew together this story in print and onstage are the imagination and suspension of disbelief that audiences bring to these formats. Subtract these aids by translating the tale to a more visual medium, and, well, you have to really know what you’re doing.

Despite their experience and past successes, director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), screenwriter William Nicholson (“Gladiator”) and a handful of collaborators from the original musical team falter here.

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Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are supporting players in the high-profile cast ... more >

Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the right thing to do? By the film’s end, protagonist Jean Valjean can confidently answer these questions, but the project itself cannot. Is it a big, bold re-imagining of the musical, or a more straightforward interpretation? Is it realist, fantastic or campy? Epic and sweeping, or an intimate close-up? Are big name box-office draws the main priority, or are virtuosic acting and vocal performances paramount?

Without a clear, coherent vision, the film’s casting is off, beginning with Hugh Jackman as the leading man. He may sound like a strong candidate for Valjean: People’s 2008 Sexiest Man Alive can be grizzled or elegant; he can do action (the “X-Men” series) or song-and-dance (see his Tony Award for proof). The problem is, he just can’t do Jean Valjean. Mr. Jackman’s physical and emotional transformation from gaunt, primal prisoner to refined model citizen and loving father figure is convincing. But in a film that, like the musical, is sung-through rather than spoken, it all comes down to the vocals. And where Mr. Jackman needs focused intensity and gut-level fire and bass, he gives us shrill, somewhat nasal and showy — a much better fit for a musical with more tap shoes in it.

As Valjean nemesis Inspector Javert, Russell Crowe (“Gladiator”) is even more disappointing. With his cool, dry demeanor and delivery, does anyone actually buy him as an obsessive lawman who devotes his life to maintaining the extreme, black-and-white order of his world? Mr. Crowe’s acting and vocal performances are far too bland and gray for this.

With the leading men casting a dim light, the supporting actors sparkle all the more. This includes Anne Hathaway in her much-hyped turn as Fantine, a factory worker and mother driven to destitution and an early death. The actress’ award-worthy portrayal is unflinchingly raw, her giant doe eyes haunting.

Also terrific are English stage-and-screen actor Eddie Redmayne as Marius and young musical star and “Les Mis” veteran Samantha Barks as Eponine; in some of the movie’s more stripped-down scenes, both channel West End wow and show what the film could have been had it tried for a simpler, more direct interpretation of the musical.

At the end of the day, despite flashes of beauty and brilliance, the project feels jumbled and jarring — and the best place to experience this story, these characters and these songs is still a theater.

★★½

TITLE: “Les Miserables”

CREDITS: Directed by Tom Hooper; screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer; music by Mr. Schonberg; lyrics by Mr. Kretzmer; based on the stage musical “Les Miserables” by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schonberg, from the book by Victor Hugo

RATING: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

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