The problem with reviewing a movie like Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is that it is not really one movie. This is a problem inherit to the structure of the stage show. A large number of the songs are solos, separating one of the characters apart from the others and letting them have the spotlight all to themselves. Here the flaw is exacerbated by the unequal distribution of singing talent among the cast, making it easy for the viewer to veer back and forth across the entire range of emotions. Certain songs create a well-spring of genuine feeling. There are songs of anguish, heartbreak, and loss which in the right hands are otherworldly effective. There are songs with rousing choruses which stir the blood quite capably. Unfortunately, there are also songs that provoke a response quite opposite to that which is intended. The film is ultimately too inconsistent to be as truly as great as its occasional moments of greatness, though luckily it is nowhere near as bad as its worst moments either.
Even at 158 minutes, the plot of Les Miserables often feels hurried. There isn't a lot of time for quiet contemplation as the viewer is bandied about between different characters singing their hearts out. Succinctly, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, after being warned by the steadfast Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that his past will follow him wherever he goes. Jackman is adept at portraying Valjean's bitterness and hate for the world which he feels now owes him retribution. After being shown the error of his ways by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London and on Broadway), Valjean resolves to begin life anew. However, to do so he must escape from his past, breaking his parole and assuming a new identity.
Years later we catch up with Valjean and find him running a factory and serving as the mayor of a little town. By the type of coincidence only allowed in 19th century novels, Javert is transferred to the same town, arriving at a unfortunate moment which causes Valjean to ignore the plight of Fantine (Anne Hathaway). When her fellow workers discover that Fantine has a child out of wedlock that she has left in the care of some Parisian innkeepers, they spread ugly rumors about her and cost her the job.
The rest of the plot revolves around the consequences of Fantine's plight, and Valjean's remorse over being responsible, plus it would take too long to explain, so let's get back to the review.
Given the multitudinous nature of the film, it's probably more informative to talk in terms of performances. As I mentioned before, they were quite varied. Jackman is very good as Valjean, both before and after his spiritual awakening. His singing is also quite good. Even when I disagreed with his singing choices (he had a tendency to downplay some notes which I thought could stand to be bellowed) I respected them for dramatic reasons. He really did inhabit the character.
Unfortunately, his counterpart Inspector Javert was not portrayed nearly as successfully. Russell Crowe was perhaps not as bad as the universally negative reviews had prepared me to expect, but his lapses can not be ignored. Crowe actually did a fair job capturing the intensity and commitment of Javert, although he was surprisingly unmenacing. Musically, Crowe was obviously far more comfortable playing off his fellow actors. He was much stronger in The Confrontation, in which he trades verses with Jackman, than he was in solo songs such as Stars, a song he butchered and rushed through so badly it can not be forgiven. At times he just looked plain nervous. His casting has to be considered a mistake.
The most buzzed-about performance is Anne Hathaway's, which is being talked about as an Oscar certainty. In truth, it took me a while to warm up to her acting, which at points seemed a little too technically precise, even during her big solo, I Dreamed a Dream. During this very evocative song, I was mostly observing her performance instead of being moved by it. However, I was completely won over by Hathaway's version of Come to Me, which was very moving and for which I'll agree she is awards-worthy.
The love triangle of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Eponine (Samantha Barks) is mostly successful. Seyfried has a rather lovely voice but at the high end of the register she has an unfortunate tendency to warble. Redmayne looks a little too much like a Muppet for me to really take him seriously, but he was mostly fine in a thankless role. Samantha Barks has played Eponine on stage, so her belting of On My Own is one of the more impressive vocal achievements in the film, however, her character seems to be a victim of the films hurried pace. The pain of her unrequited love for Marius doesn't get enough time to really connect with the audience.
The film's most disruptive, damaging performances are actually turned in by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who adopted Cosette and commit thefts to supplement their meager income. In the stage show they are meant for comic relief, which means they are exaggerated eccentrics. This works alright on stage, but on film their grotesque over-the-top appearance is distracting and breaks the rhythm of the film entirely. Though both are game for anything, they have been miscast and poorly applied to the story.
Hooper, who won an undeserved Oscar for directing The King's Speech, does a mixed job on this film as well. His extreme close-ups aren't so much distracting as they are unnecessary. It's as though Hooper sought to give fans of the theater a closer view than they could get of the stage version, forgetting that movie screens are big enough to see human faces clearly in the wide-shot.
Les Miserables is a messy, brassy, sentimental show, and that makes for an uneven application to the film. Maybe no one could have made a completely satisfying movie out of the show, but it still stings that this isn't as great as it so clearly could have been. As it is, it still has moments of fantastic power and soaring strength. It will probably be one of my 5-10 favorite movies of the year. But its flaws are so visible that there will be others, less predisposed in the movie's favor, who will be far less forgiving. And they won't be wrong.