3 1/2 stars
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone
Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and suggestive sexual content
One miscast role badly damages an otherwise splendid adaptation of this beloved play
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
Anne Hathaway’s performance, by itself, is worth the price of admission.
Her climactic solo on “I Dreamed a Dream” may be the best musical moment ever captured on film. Nay, one of cinema’s finest five-minute scenes, period.
Words cannot convey the power of her performance, which director Tom Hooper wisely, amazingly, captures in a single long take. Hathaway starts out gangbusters, never taking cover in the multiple edits that have become ubiquitous in too many of today’s lesser musicals, and she simply gets better, stronger, more poignant and powerful as the tune continues.
This is no standard-issue pause for song; Hathaway emotes throughout, never losing her character’s heartbreaking anguish, instead using the lyrics themselves, pouring body and soul into every syllable, as the scene builds, and builds, and builds, until achieving a level of intensity that grabs us by the throat. Her work is positively wrenching.
When she concludes, finally, we sink back with exhaustion. Truly stunned. Blown away. Aware of having witnessed a movie moment for the ages.
I can’t say that Hooper achieves the same level of excellence throughout all of this long-awaited, big-screen adaptation of “Les Misérables,” but he certainly draws similarly superb performances from most of his cast. His film is highlighted by numerous show-stopping songs: some solos, others displaying the exquisite harmonies woven into Claude-Michel Schönberg’s often complex score.
Hugh Jackman is well cast as the stalwart Jean Valjean, the tragic hero whose destiny changes first with an act of kindness by a clergyman, and then again after accepting responsibility for an orphaned little girl. Hathaway is sublime as the doomed Fantine; Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide ample comic relief as the greedy, grasping Thénardier and his wife.
Their production number, “Master of the House,” is another marvelous set-piece, this one an imaginatively choreographed display of larcenous behavior that evokes fond memories of Fagin’s “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two,” in 1968’s “Oliver!”
Much further into the story, Eddie Redmayne — as Marius — delivers an equally moving rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” giving this lament to absent friends a level of grace and emotional intensity that rivals the final verse of the classic “Danny Boy.”
All this said, all the things that Hooper and his cast get right, the film suffers mightily from one of the worst cases of miscasting I’ve ever endured: Russell Crowe’s misguided presence as Javert, the dogged policeman who hounds Valjean through time, place and numerous changes of identity.
Crowe can’t sing.
Not a note.
He whisper/talk-chants in the manner of Rex Harrison, which might have been acceptable in a lightweight musical comedy, but sure as hell doesn’t work here. Crowe’s solos — the midpoint “Stars” and the dirge during Javert’s eventual epiphany — are hopelessly weak, but at least they embarrass nobody but himself. The true harm comes during performances with other players, when Javert’s contributions should blend harmonically, powerfully, with (for example) Valjean.
Scenes that should be thunderous, musically, fall flat: utterly sabotaged by Crowe’s flimsy efforts at song. A musical hasn’t been this badly served since a young and tuneless Clint Eastwood was forced to “Sing to the Trees” in the 1969 film adaptation of “Paint Your Wagon.”
What was Hooper thinking?
Given the care with which every other role is cast — a talent he displayed equally well with 2010’s “The King’s Speech,” bringing an Oscar to Colin Firth in the process — I can’t imagine why Hooper went so tone-deaf by selecting Crowe.
The mind doth boggle.
The damage actually extends beyond Crowe’s lack of musical chops; his acting also is a weak link. Javert needs to be striking, terrifying, implacable; Crowe makes him merely dogged and plodding, something of a mumbling, 19th century Columbo. Absolutely the wrong reading for the role. I waited, in vain, for the ferocity that Crowe brought to his work in, say, “The Insider” or “A Beautiful Mind.” Never happened.
He isn’t merely a weak link; he rusts the entire chain. Absolutely tragic.
In all other respects, Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is a lavish, impeccably acted adaptation that will, I’m sure, be admired by the fans who’ve flocked, lo these many years, to touring productions of the original Cameron Mackintosh stage production.
Hooper opens up the action imaginatively and impressively, with production designer Eve Stewart and art director Grant Armstrong bringing 19th century France to glorious life in terms of both opulence and squalor. (One gets a very strong sense of slums and sewers, during the course of this story!) Cinematographer Danny Cohen similarly varies lens, focus and film stock grain, depending on the demands of a given scene; the movie’s appearance, from one moment to the next, deftly complements the emotional thrust of each song.
The saga begins dramatically in 1815, in Toulon, as Valjean — known only as Prisoner 24601 — and his fellow convicts haul a massive ship into port, ocean water crashing about these poor wretches, all laboring under the watchful gaze of Javert. Jackman leads the ensemble in the opening number, “Look Down,” which establishes the grim Valjean/Javert dynamic that will fuel the story to come.
This becomes Valjean’s final act in chains, as he’s subsequently granted parole; Javert, however, fully expects this “bad man” to behave according to type and land back in jail. It very nearly happens that way, save for the benevolence of a bishop who displays faith in Valjean’s ability to turn his life around.
This prologue succinctly established — this musical, of necessity, greatly compresses the events in Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page novel — events move forward eight years, to Montreuil-sur-Mer, where Valjean has reinvented himself as Monsieur Madeleine, the respected town mayor and factory owner. One of his workers, Fantine, has a secret illegitimate child whose existence becomes known to all the other women. They turn on her, and Fantine loses her job, becoming a prostitute in order to keep paying the avaricious guardians — Thénardier and his wife — who abuse little Cosette (Isabelle Allen) while spoiling their own daughter, Éponine (Natalya Wallace).
Fantine’s descent into desperate depravity is depicted strikingly via song (“Lovely Ladies”) during a horrific sequence that climaxes with her forlorn rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”
Valjean, meanwhile, has encountered Javert anew, who wonders whether they’ve met before. Circumstance eventually forces Valjean to behave according to the nobler path he has taken; the result is that he and Cosette — having secured her release from the Thénardiers — are forced to flee.
The scene shifts again to 1832 Paris, where Valjean and a now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) have taken refuge. The city is in turmoil, with the ill-treated poor literally dying in the streets, and revolution on the minds of politically active students such as Marius and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). This situation is encapsulated during an energetic anthem delivered by a plucky, indomitable street urchin named Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone, a veteran of the West End production of this play).
Huttlestone brings fresh spirit to a production already boasting numerous strong performances; his Gavroche is a lively, instantly likable lad.
By chance, Marius spots Cosette one day; the mutual attraction is immediate and powerful. This comes as a sad shock to the now-grown Éponine (Samantha Barks), who loves Marius herself, but fears she cannot compete. Éponine’s parents are on hand, as well, as all the active characters come together while Enjolras and his fellow revolutionaries gather ammunition in anticipation of a final stand against the king’s army.
The entire epic unfolds via song and action; very little dialogue is simply spoken. The few exceptions are, as a result, quite touching. It’s amazing, really, how the artifice and florid theatricality eventually melt away, and we find ourselves as wholly invested in the story, and these characters, as would be the case with a “straight” drama.
Indeed, being able to enjoy big-screen close-ups of Jackman, Hathaway and all the others, particularly during their solos, brings fresh power to the experience. You simply can’t get that level of intensity from the first- and second-balcony seats that most folks are forced to accept during a live production, which truly works only for those lucky enough to occupy the front 10 rows or so.
At its best, Hooper’s film captures those front-and-center thrills, reminding us precisely why so many fans have adored this musical for so many years.
Too bad Crowe’s colorless Javert keeps getting in the way.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com