Film Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables is arguably the most critically and commercially successful Broadway show of the late 20th century. Cameron Mackintosh's production of the Schonberg/Boubil musical marked the apex of the late 80's wave of British imports, and still claims millions of devotees nearly three decades after its debut. So any years-in-development film adaptation of such an icon must naturally be approached with trepidation. But as a Les Miz lover for a quarter century I'm pleased to report that, though imperfect, director Tom Hooper's interpretation easily exceeded my expectations.

In this telling of novelist Victor Hugo's oft-retold tale, Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, the ex-con turned Good Samaritan who breaks parole after an unjust imprisonment, and spends he rest of his life playing cat-and-mouse against monomaniacal Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) across revolutionary France. Along the way, Valjean rescues Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), angelic offspring of seamstress-turned-strumpet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), from the foul fosterage of the iniquitous innkeeping Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonham Carter, virtually reprising their riotous Sweeney Todd roles). The company becomes embroiled in an ill-fated Parisian student rebellion led by Cosette's moon-eyed paramour Marius (Eddie Redmayne), climaxing in a life-or-death standoff inside the city's sewers.

Aided by cinematographer Danny Cohen and editors Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver, Hooper innovates a new visual vocabulary for musical cinema; neither the stage-bound proscenium framing of the golden age, nor MTV-style quick cutting, but a gritty grandiosity born of handheld cameras, long takes, and extreme close-ups. The effect is occasionally uncomfortably off-putting, but more often engaging in its illusion of unvarnished intimacy. Most striking are the signature soliloquies, such as "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," "On My Own," and "I Dreamed a Dream," which were captured in unbroken shots with live singing (as opposed to the standard studio-recorded lip-syncing), resulting in unprecedented in-your-face intensity.

Hathaway's devastating performance of that last song is the film's undisputed highlight, an Oscar-worthy rendition that rivals any of the best Fantines I've seen on stage. Jackman also does an admirable job; even if his high notes in psalm-like "Bring Him Home" don't have the operatic oomph of originator Colm Wilkinson (who cameos as a pivotal priest), he brings welcome emotional depth and range to the saintly starring role. The only leading performer not holding up his end is Crowe; his jaw may be sufficiently square for the self-righteous stalker, but his amateurish vocals vacillate from reedy whines to wannabe rock-star growls, neither of which can properly propel a show-stopper like "Stars."

Screenwriter William Nicholson (adapting Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics) cleverly clips some of the show's less essential recitative segments, replacing them with minimalist dialogue, to reduce the famously-long running time without sacrificing any of the beloved songs. The minor structural changes made, such as swapping the order of "I Dreamed a Dream" and the nightmarish "Lovely Ladies," serve to strengthen the narrative drive, and a few melodramatic elements from the source material -- including the urchin ingenue Eponine (Samantha Barks) heroically sacrificing herself for Marius -- were successfully restored. Still, a little more condensing could have been considered in the somewhat sluggish second half, and an ill-advised new ballad added at the midpoint would be better off excised.

Quibbles aside, this is a compelling initiation into the story for the uninitiated, and a friendly return to the fold for the faithful. Just don't forget to pack a box of tissues for the drive back; without a cathartic curtain call to lift your spirits after the heartrending conclusion, you're likely to be sniffling the whole way home.