Since its English-language debut in London's West End in 1985, "Les Misérables" has gone on to be the world's longest-running musical, seen by more than 60 million people, in 42 countries, performed in 21 different languages, and winner of nearly 100 awards internationally. A film adaptation of the show was always a given, though it's been a long time coming. It also happens to be my father's favorite musical, and thus as a child I was dragged to see it every time a touring production came through Rochester. The music has been in my consciousness since well before I had any concept of what the show's "lovely ladies" were actually singing about, and because of this, I count myself among the musicals many admirers. So it's all the more disheartening to report that the big-screen adaptation is as disappointing as it is.
Based upon the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo, the musical tells the epic redemption story of prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), jailed for stealing a loaf of bread in order to feed his starving family. As the story begins, he is being released from prison after 19 years. Rather than face being identified as a convict for the rest of his life, Valjean breaks parole and flees to start a new life for himself. His chief captor, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), believing that men can never change, vows to track down Valjean no matter what it takes.
Adopting a new identity, Valjean grows into a wealthy factory owner. When a decision on his part inadvertently results in the dismissal of a young worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), forcing her into prostitution to get by, he promises the dying woman that he will care for her young daughter, Cosette, who is in the custody of the cruel and greedy Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). From there, the story jumps in time to when Cosette has grown into a young woman (played by Amanda Seyfried) who falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne, "My Week With Marilyn"), a student revolutionary caught up in the June Rebellion of 1832. Of course, there's also a love triangle, with Eponine (stage veteran Samantha Barks), the daughter of Cosette's former caretakers, making up the third side.
The story is immense, overwrought, melodramatic, and manipulative, but in the best way possible. The downfall of the film in that director Tom Hooper isn't content to let the story speak for itself. He's got to gussy up the film with ostentatious direction: rapid-fire editing, soaring cameras, extreme close-ups, wide-angle lenses, and the ever-present shaky cam. He clearly intends for the camera work to draw in the audience, but instead it serves as a distraction, constantly calling attention to itself. Hooper is apparently also staunchly against the use of establishing shots, always dropping us into the middle of a room with no sense of the surrounding space. It gives the film a claustrophobic, closed-off feel despite its immense scale.
Much has been made of Hooper's decision to have his actors sing live on set (as opposed to lip-syncing over a prerecorded vocal track) and, other than allowing the performers to sob, gasp, and cough their way through their lyrics, the technique doesn't make the viewing experience feel much different.
The performances are a mixed bag. No stranger to Broadway stages, Hugh Jackman handles his challenging role quite well, but Russell Crowe sounds as though he's straining to reach each note and looks stiff and uncomfortable the entire time he's on screen. Javert is a fascinating character, but one that the musical never fully explores, only giving hints about his backstory. Crowe's oddly meek performance allows the character to recede even more into the background, and he never becomes the imposing presence he should be. The high point of the film is by far Anne Hathaway's justly celebrated single-take rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." As good as Hathaway's performance is, I admit that I still had to suppress a giggle when she paused her singing to offer up a few meek little coughs to indicate that she was indeed dying.
The film wallows in the muck, dirt and grime, determined to provide a gritty realism that is at odds with the inherently theatrical story it's telling. For all its darkness, this is a story very much grounded in the world of musical theater: people fall in love at a glance and sing passionately on their deathbeds. You can't present this kind of material in a realistic way, or it feels false. A film like Tim Burton's "Sweeney Todd," another adaptation of a gritty and grimy musical, understood this and went to the opposite end of the spectrum, opting instead for super-stylized excess. Hooper's efforts only served to convince me that "Les Misérables" is a story that could only work on the stage.