This is why you can’t pay too much attention to the buzz and get all wrapped up in Twitter noise that all of sudden made everyone go, “Oscar frontrunner!” Early screenings of “Les Miserables” did provoke audiences to burst into applause after certain song performances and yes, many were in tears by the end of the film. And that’s because Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” has two incredible sequences (both of which audiences thundered over in our early screening), but the rest of the movie? Well, maybe not so much.
Though there’s actually lots of positive things to say about the film. Its scope and ambition are to be admired, and Hooper’s certainly stepped up his game from the rather pedestrian, but effective “The King’s Speech.” It’s great to see the filmmaker challenging himself and “Les Miserables,” at nearly two hours and forty minutes, is a huge, epic undertaking. Anne Hathaway, as you’ve likely heard, is breathtakingly good in her small, but unforgettable role as Fantine. She essentially brings the house down with her stirring rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Hugh Jackman is also strong, and similarly emotionally committed to the role. And then there’s that moving and spectacular finish, which will leave audiences floored.
The rest of the film, however, is just a little bit overcooked. The initial grandeur -- which impresses as it’s a 180 from Hooper’s past work -- begins to curdle into something histrionic, bombastic and overly extravagant. Obviously based on the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, “Les Miserables” spans about two or three decades of time (at least) and centers on Jean Valjean (Jackman), a thief turned pious man, who is trying to turn his life around in 19th-century France, but is relentlessly hounded by the heartless policeman Javert after he breaks parole. Russell Crowe is imposing and fittingly scary as Javert, but the singing doesn’t always take as impressively as the others.
Imprisoned for an exorbitant 20 years for stealing bread to feed his starving family, when Jean Valjean is finally released he is bitter and angry. In a desperate moment he tries to steal from the very priest who is trying to help him. When he is caught, the priest turns a blind eye and lies for him, and Jean Valjean, seeing the mercy and love they’ve shown him, transforms and lives his life for kindness from this day forward. Jean flees town, but years later makes himself into a wealthy man.
But fate intervenes when Fantine, a worker at his factory, dies (it’s complicated), and Jean Valjean agrees to care for her daughter Cosette (eventually played by Amanda Seyfried when she’s older). That fateful day changes everything, as the cruel and merciless Javert essentially tries to hunt him down for violating his parole years and years ago. From there the film tracks the Valjean/Javert conflict, as the man on the run becomes entangled with a group of young idealists (which includes Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit) swept up in a French uprising.
Featuring 50 songs (not one of them actually edited out of the original musical; even one new one is added), “Les Miserables” is unrelenting with its barrage of music and it would have been nice to see the acting sparks of Crowe vs. Jackman take flight (instead they sort of sing at each other from afar; a type of “I’m gonna get you”/“you should forgive me” over and over again). And it's not helped by the grueling runtime, in which every minute is felt, with almost no editing or shortening of the original story, which makes for a long slog.
Cinematically, the scale and size of “Les Miserables” is absorbing, and affecting; you can see why in the U.K. they’re going to put the film on IMAX screens. But the fish-angle lens approach that Hooper takes to almost every other shot begins to wear on the eyes much, like most of what strikes the viewer as initially appealing. Co-starring Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks (who has her own subplot), Daniel Huttlestone and Isabelle Allen (as the young Cosette), Cohen and Carter play the comic relief, but they’re essentially out of a Tim Burton caricature, and their entire sections are painful and garishly predictable.
When it comes to the musical performances, the actresses -- Hathaway, Seyfried and Barks -- all have wonderful swooning voices, and fare much better than the men, which is a distracting issue, considering that the film is largely about the males in the movie. And while Hooper pushing himself is commendable -- he was over dogged for his safe direction of "The King's Speech" which suited the material -- "Les Miserables" isn't going to silence his critics.
But, “Les Miserables” ends magnificently. The conclusion is epic, emotionally rousing and yes, does move audiences to tears and joy and applause. It’s a tremendously crafted sequence utilizing the best this musical has to offer, with stirring songs, passionate emotion and an almost panoramic cinematic sweep to it. And so while ‘Les Mis’ ends terrifically, it cannot make up for the largely uneven experience that comes before it. There is no doubt an abundance of passion and commitment in “Les Miserables” but when the musical isn’t connecting emotionally -- which is at least half the time -- it’s a lot of blustering sound and fury that could either use a dialogue break or an edit. [C]