Life hasn’t turned out well for Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman: Rise of the Guardians). After stealing bread to feed his nephew and sister, he’s arrested and given 20 years hard labor. Branded a dangerous man, Valjean must wander the countryside looking for work and finding nothing but cruelty.
Hardened by the injustices of his life, Valjean is about to give up hope when a kindly priest offers him a second chance. Now a fugitive with a new identity, Valjean has become a successful businessman and a pillar of the community, until his former jailer Javert (Russell Crowe: The Man With The Iron Fists) comes to town and threatens his happy life.
Distracted by Javert’s inquiries into his past, Valjean doesn’t notice when his loyal worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway: The Dark Knight Rises) is unjustly fired and thrown on the streets. By the time he’s realized the error it’s too late for Fantine — she’s now a prostitute and deathly ill. While it may be too late for Valjean to save Fantine, he feels compelled to save her child from the same fate.
On the run and trying to raise the Cosette (Amanda Seyfried: Gone), Valjean must also contend with the burgeoning violence of France’s June Rebellion.
Based on the wildly popular musical and directed by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Les Miserables has the scale and artistry required to match its stage counterpart. Hooper excels at setting the scene, with grime-smudged peasants with gray skin lining the streets of every scene. Hooper makes the entire film reminiscent of 19th century painting, with faced blues and murky browns as the predominant colors.
While the sets are beautiful and the art direction divine, the performances are the greatest strength and weakness of the film. Jackman is a fine Valjean, though at times his theater training shows through. Jackman over emotes and blasts through his songs with a vibrato and performance meant to reach the rafters of a theater. The problem occurs when he’s paired with his co-stars, especially Crow and Eddie Redmayne, who prefer a more natural, film-influenced emoting. The result leaves one suspecting that Valjean is hard of hearing, since he shouts so much.
The real problem with Les Miserables, however, is its antagonist Javert. Hooper committed the cardinal sin of casting an actor who can’t sing in a role that requires a near operatic range. While Crowe can furrow his brow like a champ, the second he opens his mouth and lets loose a note, it becomes achingly clear how unqualified he is for the part.
Thankfully, the supporting work in the movie is superior and helps ease the pain of Crowe’s rasp. Hathaway sealed up her Oscar nomination and likely win the second she belted out her moving version of “I Dreamed a Dream” while dying glamorously. Film newcomer Samantha Barks is a special treat, with a strong voice and a compelling presence she upstages dull Cosette with her impressive performance as Eponine.
The story still has pacing and logic problems, but they’re the same problems the musical has had for 27 years. I’ve always found Les Miserables a bit overwrought and overlong, but clearly I’m in the minority.
Les Miserables is a visually impressive and often emotionally moving work. If you enjoyed the musical, or just need a break from family dinners this holiday season, the movie offers you an excellent emotional catharsis. Plus, with a running time of over two and a half hours, it’s well worth the price of admission.