Turning a big Broadway musical into an equally popular motion picture is one of the most difficult tasks in Hollywood.
Despite the beloved source material and showstopping moments each can have, the last decade is known for the excellence of "Chicago" and "Hairspray" and littered with film versions of "Rock of Ages," "Rent" and "The Producers" that didn't work.
"Les Miserables," which opens in movie theaters on Tuesday, falls somewhere in between these extremes. It is a film so full of passion and songs that it's a bombastic barrage on the senses, but it also features a performance so spellbinding that Anne Hathaway will likely win an Academy Award.
Hugh Jackman, Russell
Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda
Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne
Cinemark Tulsa, Promenade,
Cinemark Broken Arrow,
RiverWalk, Owasso, Starworld
20, Eton Square, Moviestar
2 hours, 38 minutes
PG-13 (suggestive and
sexual material, violence and
(on a scale of zero
to four stars)
Director Tom Hooper (an Oscar-winner for "The King's Speech") makes some risky choices in working with the Broadway show's producer Cameron Mackintosh to evoke novelist Victor Hugo's sweeping saga of the transformation of Jean Valjean as he goes from criminal past to community leader, all set to the soul-stirring music and lyrics of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.
The safest choice was in casting Hugh Jackman as Valjean, the sinner released from 19 years of hard labor in 19th-century France only to then be pursued relentlessly by prison guard-turned-police inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe.
Jackman combines an authoritative directness with heart-on-his-sleeve emotions as both the heart and soul of this sweeping tale. He is assured in songs like his crisis-of-conscience number, "Who Am I," in pulling off Hooper's plan to have his actors sing live on the set - rather than the usual miming to a soundtrack that the actors have recorded long before filming.
Not every cast member can pull off this task (Crowe's singing voice can best be described as a controlled holler), but Hathaway achieves remarkable intimacy in her performance as Fantine, the woman forced into prostitution to care for her young daughter, Cosette (who will eventually be raised by Valjean, the factory owner who has Fantine kicked to the curb).
Beaten and bruised, her hair chopped off and her teeth appearing to die by the moment, Hathaway nonetheless shines in the spotlight displaying pain, fear and a mother's conviction.
She delivers the musical's key song, "I Dreamed a Dream," and she effectively sucks the life out of the rest of the film. No other actor can match her quality of transcendence to stir an audience's emotions to tears, and that's a problem because she exits so early in the picture.
While watching this story of French citizens, some seeking redemption and many seeking revolution, I quickly decided that rather than watching Hooper's herky-jerky photography of Paris in a poverty pallette of muddy art direction and costuming, I would prefer to be listening to the Broadway soundtrack.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter deliver the choreographed comedy necessary to enliven the thieving Thenardiers, and Eddie Redmayne is in wonderful vocal as well as acting form as Marius, the young man who falls for a young-adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
But they and the rest of the cast fall victim to an in-a-rush staging.
Everything feels rushed in this production, with song after song arriving as if on an assembly line, pushing forward. A movie version can be appreciated better with a few more words between songs, to provide both context as well as room to breathe. Even at 158 minutes long, "Les Miserables" feels rushed.
The scenes involving the showing of Napoleon's plaster Elephant of the Bastille at the center of Paris, as students thinking revolution meet up with military forces, is the most expansive shot of the film. The result is not good, as shaky computer-generated effects added to the British studio lot look done on the cheap.
Using hand-held cameras too frequently and close-ups ad nauseum, the film feels small, when most everything about "Les Miserables" seemed to indicate spectacle was in order.
"Les Miserables" does have its moments, but not nearly enough of them to make this a must-see production. Achieving that status would be asking the impossible: that Fantine live a little longer.
Original Print Headline: 'Les Miserables' rises and falls
Michael Smith 918-581-8479