Over the last 30-odd years, I have somehow managed to remain innocent of all things Les Misérables. From its germination in Paris through its conquest of London’s West End, its 16 years on Broadway (plus another two in revival), its profusion of international productions (in some 20 languages), and its various vinyl and CD incarnations, I had until now seen not a moment and heard not a note (well, not very many notes) of this globe-throttling musical. So perhaps I can offer a fresh, nonpartisan assessment of Tom Hooper’s new film version.
First of all, it’s huge, not least in terms of its runtime. In a season of sprawling Oscar-nudgers, Les Miz, at two hours and 37 minutes, is longer than Lincoln, just as long as Zero Dark Thirty, and nearly as long as Django Unchained and the current champion butt-tester, The Hobbit. The cast is suitably large, and ranges in musical expertise from such seasoned belters as Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway to such unexpected vocalists as Eddie Redmayne (surprisingly terrific) and Russell Crowe. Yes, Russell Crowe. I know he has long fronted his own Aussie rock group, but that hasn’t quite prepared him for this.
Any movie that begins with Crowe stepping forth in song is a movie that summons dark fears. But while he does seem a little puzzled about why he’s here, he’s not bad, and he is a fine actor, of course, and he gets better as the story—distilled from Victor Hugo’s doorstopping novel—moves along. He plays Javert, the implacable police inspector who, over the course of 17 years, doggedly pursues the unfortunate Jean Valjean (Jackman), a man who was long imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread and then violated parole to escape into a new identity as a prosperous factory owner and provincial mayor.
Along the trail of Valjean’s endless persecution by Javert we encounter an abundance of other characters. There’s the wretched Fantine (Hathaway), a former drudge in Valjean’s factory who is reduced to dismal prostitution in order to provide for her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (played in full flower by Amanda Seyfried, herself no slacker in the vocal department). Then there are the low-comic Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), hissable innkeepers into whose clutches Cosette falls, and the idealistic student Marius (Redmayne), whose longtime love for Cosette is a source of despair for the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (stage vet Samantha Barks), who yearns for Marius herself.
From the early prison scenes to the armed civic rebellion in the streets of Paris, virtually every line of dialogue here is sung. This is not a format of which I’m normally fond; but the songs (by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), while not uniformly hummable, are carefully crafted, and have a general harmonic enterprise that held my interest. Hooper’s elaborate interiors and charmingly artificial municipal vistas provide a lot to look at, and he has given the film a striking theatrical immediacy by having the performers actually sing on-camera, rather than lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks. The movie is basically a procession of showpiece scenes, and as I watched Valjean being frustrated by cruel circumstance in his attempts to do the right thing, and the other characters slogging their way through various sorrowful situations, I have to admit that I was sometimes moved to the verge of contemplating the possibility of tears.
In addition, Jackman gives what I think would have to be called an epic performance as the stalwart hero, maintaining a heartbroken dignity through all of Hooper’s endless close-ups. And Hathaway, in raggedy clothes and pitifully chopped hair, sailing into “I Dreamed a Dream” like a castaway on the high seas of misery, seems sure to secure the Oscar nomination for which she, like Jackman, is already being touted.
I’m not much of a movie-musical buff, but I was surprised by how enjoyable this picture’s earnest stew of musical and emotional overkill turned out to be. No matter how resistant you normally are to this sort of overflowing cinematic exercise, if you number among your loved ones any ardent fans of the stage show, you’ll almost certainly soon be seeing Les Miz. You might be surprised, too.