The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper’s big-screen take on the long-running, universally beloved stage musical Les Miserables, is a bold and audacious piece of work, but one that overstays its welcome and leaves you feeling overfed in the end.
More ambitious than Chicago or Mamma Mia!, Hooper’s film is a sprawling tale of love, idealism and sacrifice set in 19th century Paris. What separates Les Miserables from the dozen-odd screen musicals you’ve likely seen is that there’s virtually no dialogue here – just wall-to-wall musical numbers – and Hooper’s A-list cast belts out the tracks live on set, lending an urgency and a much deeper sense of “realness” to the performances.
The film benefits considerably from the casting of Hugh Jackman in the central role of Jean Valjean, a man who serves 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, before he escapes and reinvents himself as a respectable textile merchant and the mayor of a small French town. Pursued relentlessly by the obsessed policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean can never rest.
Deeply moved by the plight of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a seamstress in his factory who must sell her hair, her teeth and her body when she loses her job, Valjean adopts her young daughter Cosette as Fantine lies on her deathbed. Caring for her like his own child, Valjean raises Cosette into a young beautiful girl (Amanda Seyfried), and worries about her falling for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a handsome student actively participating in the French rebellion.
Filmed like an enormous rock opera, Les Miserables has impressive sets, beautiful costumes, and a compelling story. Spectacular to look at and often heartbreakingly poignant to listen to, Hooper never really ditches the stage musical feel while transposing Les Miserables to the screen. But by the film’s second half – which concerns itself with the student rebellion of 1832 – you can’t help feeling exhausted. The musical set-pieces are cut frenetically, and the camera bobs around madly, making your eyes glaze over and your head throb. At a running time of approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes, the film is way too long for its own good.
Of the cast, Hugh Jackman has a restless physicality, and he sings his lungs out in what has to be his bravest performance yet. Anne Hathaway is particularly riveting as the doomed factory girl, revealing an impressive singing voice to match her solid acting chops. Russel Crowe, on the other hand, comes off as too stiff, his vocals much too awkward for his hulking frame. Meanwhile, a nice dash of humor is provided by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who show up as a pair of cackling innkeepers.
In addition to being a spectacle for the eyes and ears, Les Miserables is heartfelt and moving in parts. This is grand filmmaking, but also unquestionably indulgent. I’m going with three out of five for Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables. Go armed with patience, and you’ll be rewarded.