‘Les Miserables’: Great Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman Performances Can’t Save an Overlong, Overwrought Stage Adaptation (MOVIE REVIEW)

Hit and 'Les Mis'
Reviews are in for the awards-season musical.
First things first: Anne Hathaway probably deserves an Academy Award for her performance in Les Miserables.

Given how much she throws herself into the role of Fantine, the beleaguered mother who resorts to prostitution and hair-selling to make ends meet, she certainly seems to want one.

But then again, the entirety of the big-screen adaptation of the classic stage musical seems so aggressively overwrought, so go-for-broke in its intensity, that the whole thing practically screams “OSCAR DARLING,” even as the din of its ambition turns the whole production into a maudlin act of white-noise desperation, underscored by director Tom Hooper’s inability to discern the difference between quiet and loud – not just musically, but as a storyteller and dramatist.

Hugh Jackman (Real Steel) stars as Jean Valjean, a prisoner who breaks parole after completing a 19-year prison sentence and attempts to build himself a new life as a businessman. Determined to prove that his troubled past is behind him, Valjean adopts Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s orphaned daughter, and raises her in affluence. But his past returns to haunt him when Javert (Russell Crowe), the policeman who once detained him, discovers his new identity and refuses to believe that the former convict has been rehabilitated.

As Javert pursues Valjean, the Parisian rebellion unfolds, and the two men find themselves caught in the midst of a much larger conflict. But as their fates are determined, Cosette falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne) a student revolutionary, and Valjean is forced to decide which is more important – his own freedom, or the happiness and safety of his adopted daughter.

Although Russell Crowe’s voice is better suited for a rock band than a stage musical, almost all of the actors do a fairly amazing job of bringing power and passion to their voices, much less their roles. Hathaway and Jackman compete for the film’s MVP – and truthfully, Jackman probably wins just for sheer ubiquitousness – but Crowe offers a convincing (if decidedly un-theatrical) understatedness as Valjean’s pursuer, and Eddie Redmayne becomes the film’s unexpected breakout as both an effective romantic lead and formidable singer.

That said, Seyfried’s trilling soprano feels more appropriate either for a Disney musical or a chipmunk serenade than a mud-soaked period epic, and Samantha Barks lends a slightly overbearing theatricality where film allows for greater subtlety as Eponine, the jilted young woman who competes for Marius’ attention.

Hooper’s previous effort was the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech, which netted him a Best Director statuette, as well as (apparently) an inflated sense of self-importance. But critically, that win did not supply him with the ability to parse between the heavy and the light, the important and unimportant, in a musical which is filled from start to finish with incredibly impassioned singing. There simply have to be some lesser moments in the film – and more importantly, some in the musical which are removed for pacing, redundancy, etc. – but Hooper treats every number, every reprise as the same sort of showstopper as the true centerpieces.

The end result is an egregiously overlong, absurdly melodramatic and yet somehow totally underwhelming story of one guy who worries too much about whether he’s a good man, another who insists he’s bad, and the beautiful women who alternately alleviate or exacerbate these anxieties. (Unfortunately, without any greater specificity or depth.)

Film can be a wonderful medium for musicals because it allows for elaborate sets, multiple camera angles, the kinds of close-ups and detail that the tableau of a stage cannot provide, and perhaps most importantly, editing. There are many, many things that can be more easily and effectively communicated on film. But Hooper treats his frame like the stage, throwing in everything humanly possible, and then sweeping in, repeatedly to numbing effect, to emphasize and re-emphasize punctuative emotional crescendos and narrative climaxes we already understand, because Jackman or some other actor has been singing about them for the previous five minutes.

Ultimately, Les Miserablesis, still, an amazing stage play, but a decidedly lackluster movie – bloated and interminable precisely because its earnest emotions, which are themselves not a bad thing, are repeated endlessly until they become bumper-sticker ideologies rather than resounding, deeply-held beliefs. But while Hooper and his (apparent absence of an) editor is chiefly responsible for the end result’s turgid repetition, Hathaway and her co-stars should be proud of their work, which, yes, may indeed be worthy of an award or two come Oscar time.

In a film seemingly about principles, it’s the people who feel them who still prevail, making Les Miserables less a miserable failure than a misfire, writ large on a stage too big to ignore its flaws.

Les Miserables opens nationwide December 25. Watch Celebuzz’ interview with star Anne Hathaway below.

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