Anne Hathaway appearing in a musical doesn’t surprise me. Her entire Oscar hosting gig felt like a four-hour audition for Glinda the Good Witch in the upcoming movie musical for “Wicked.” But who knew she could be so devastatingly good as Fantine, a woman struggling through poverty in France’s revolutionary days who winds up forced to sell her teeth, hair and self to support her young daughter Cosette. Hathaway is going to win an Oscar for two scenes, a gripping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” that is as much beautifully sung as it is a pained and emotionally naked performance, and for her death scene that comes after.
The rest of “Les Miserables,” adapted from the more than thirty year-old stage musical and Victor Hugo’s epic story, is going to have some problems. Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) has adapted his movie the way a stage musical should be adapted, holding his camera up close to the grimey streets of France and the prostitutes, street urchins, and thieves that inhabit them. But more admirably, he lets the cast do their recordings live (with little radio mics attached to them that were edited out later), no dubbing or lip-syncing, right into the camera.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a convict made to suffer nineteen years in a Parisian prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, he tries to be honest but is met with nothing but dead ends until a kindly Bishop allows him shelter for the night and later pardons him when the police bring him back with stolen church silver. This is a turning point for Valjean, who decides he must become an honest man and do the world some good.
Several years later he has reconverted as a businessman named Lumiere and while he is too late to save the life of an ailing Fantine (one of his employees), he agrees to help her by taking on Cosette as his own. The rest concerns his efforts to evade the capture of the by-the-book Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), after him for a parole violation, while the poor people of Paris rise up in revolution.
But you knew all this already, didn’t you?
Everyone, from the set, make-up, and costume designers to the actors have tried hard to add a sense of grandiosity and there are definitely a few show-stopping tunes. “One Day More” is a great group anthem to start the revolution while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring a welcome bit of levity throughout the movie as the Thenardiers, particularly in their opening sequence “Master of the House.”
The rest is a spectacular dud. Does anyone else find characters who sing, not songs, but dialogue both distracting and not so easy to get behind? I do. But more to the point the characters feel underdeveloped, which affects some of the later songs. The relationship between Valjean and Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Siegfried) is non-existent, the revolution is nothing more than a bunch of bland twentysomethings who fail to inspire, and the love triangle between Cosette, revolutionary leader Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and friend of both, Eponine (Samantha Barks), suffers from the same sort of flatness.
Jackman, who recently got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, gives his role his Broadway best and that may be part of the problem as well. In addition to getting lost among the revolution and love triangle in the second half, he’s also prone to chewing the scenery more and more. Crowe for some reason sings lightly (and not all that well) when it looks like he really wants to bellow. And Redmayne, Seyfried, and Barks can hold a tune fine but their characters are just too underwhelming.
“Les Miserables” is without question ambitious in every way, but after Hathaway is done with it, it struggles to hit an emotional chord.