One would be hard-pressed to find a more highly anticipated film this season than Tom Hooper’s production of Les Misérables. One would not be equally hard-pressed to find people who, having seen it, are disappointed. The movie is ambitious, features a very talented cast and beautiful music. So, what’s wrong? In essence, it does not live up to the hype or the source material.
Victor Hugo’s story is fairly familiar: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) was imprisoned for nine years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. Prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe) stays on him and, even after he’s paroled, hunts Valjean. This obsession stays with Javert as he becomes a detective.
Valjean is shown sympathy by a priest and, then, goes straight. He rises to run a factory and become mayor. But, still, Javert is there.
In the factory is a young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway). She confesses to having borne a child out of wedlock, loses her job and sings a most beautiful version of I Dreamed A Dream. She dies, Valjean finds the child, Cosette, raises her to adulthood (played by Amanda Seyfried) and continues to try to elude Javert.
Comic relief is provided by a pair of innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) from whom Valjean must rescue little Cosette. And, the grown-up Cosette’s lover Marius (Eddie Redmayne) provides a few moments of sweetness.
Much has been made of the fact that director Hoooper shot all the songs live, rather than having his actors lip-synch to prerecorded tracks. It’s been said this is the first time that’s been done. That is not true. Peter Bogdanovich did it in his 1975 movie, At Long Last Love. It is a very effective presentation. One can feel the emotion of the actors as they sing. Hathaway has been touted for an Academy Award for her work. Jackman — whom I believe is one of the most talented performers in any medium today — is wonderful. It is, however, difficult to believe that Crowe, whose voice here is thin and thready, fronts a rock band. He’s quiet and wooden.
Hooper gets “thisclose” to his actors faces as they sing It’s effective but a bit disconcerting. And, of course, his actors who are playing French citizens in the early 19th century all speak with English accents? Did French accents prove too difficult?
Les Misérables is another of the super-sized movies we’ve had this season. Clocking in at 157 minutes, it could be shortened by about 20 minutes. And, before any Les Miz purists gasp in horror, just remember that about the same amount of time was chopped off Phantom: The Las Vegas Spectacular and it was the best production of the show in its more than two decades on stage.
Les Misérables will undoubtedly do very well at the box office but, to lovers of the source musical, it may very well be a real letdown.