Creating a movie musical in an era of gritty cinematic realism has to be a tricky undertaking. But in Les Misérables, the perpetually popular operatic musical based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, director Tom Hooper had a prime property: a musical as gritty and harsh as the latest Iraq War vision or Batman story.
To get an unusually immersive effect, Hooper took a brave chance, too: having his cast sing their songs live on camera rather than lip-synching in the studio afterward. The gambit pays off handsomely. Performances like Anne Hathaway’s (as Fantine) of “I Dreamed a Dream,” Eddie Redmayne’s (as Marius) of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Samantha Barks’s (as Eponine) of “On My Own,” and several of Hugh Jackman’s sparkling numbers as Jean Valjean seem real, not in the way spoken dialogue is real, but hyper-real in the best possible way, and with a close-up focus not possible on stage.
“I Dreamed a Dream” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in particular, each shot in one long take and sung live, are supremely memorable movie moments. Ms. Hathaway, a respected actress but largely unknown as a singer, imbues “I Dreamed a Dream” with indescribable pathos.
On the negative side, while Russell Crowe brings his usual stoic intensity to the role of Javert, the policeman obsessed with tracking down the truant parolee Valjean, and handles his songs adequately, he doesn’t measure up vocally to Jackman (a born Broadway song-and-dance man), Redmayne, or the latter’s revolutionary compatriots (fine tenors all). Javert thus doesn’t come across as larger than life in the same way the other main characters do in this unrelentingly forceful production.
Amanda Seyfried as a winsome Cosette reveals a sweet, precise soprano and a charming presence, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter – paired up because of their matching middle and last initials? – are fetchingly entertaining as the crooked innkeeper Thénardier and his wife (though Ms. Bonham Carter does seem to be reprising her Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd perhaps a bit too much).
For the most part, the look and feel and sound of the movie kept me in the moment, two exceptions being the blatant CGI in the opening chain gang scene and the giant fake-looking dream-barricade of the finale. A few judicious excisions of verses help propel the action, but the movie still grows exhausting; it really could use an intermission, as the stage musical is designed to have. (I’m serious: One of those old-fashioned movie intermissions with nothing but music and a pretty picture on the screen would have been welcome.)
Too, as the student-led Paris Uprising of 1832 unfolds, Hooper shoots the brief battle scenes in the fashionable quick-cut chaotic style that leaves one unsure what’s happening. On the one hand, this evokes something of the real confusion of war. On the other, it can make for frustrating movie viewing.
Those are quibbles, though. My feeling is that the film will please most of the stage musical’s legion of fans while providing an entertaining and at times eye-opening historical-fiction experience to Les Miz neophytes.