There are moments early on in “Les Miserables” when viewers may feel like they’re about to witness a bona-fide disasterpiece, one of those spectacular miscalculations that can be almost as entertaining – almost – as a superbly executed work of audacious ambition and scope.
For better or worse, though, this adaptation of the mega-hit Broadway musical fits neither description, largely because it lives in that kinda-sorta, OK-not-great, this-worked-that-didn’t in-between for which words like “better” and “worse” fall woefully short.
Less a fully realized film than a strung-together series of set pieces, showstoppers, diva moments and production numbers, “Les Miserables” contains multitudes – not only in the form of a huge cast but in its own contradictions. If, by the film’s inescapably stirring final half hour, even the most inured audience members find themselves weeping openly for the story’s tragic heroines, plucky revolutionaries and idealistic young lovers, it’s less a testament to Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s strident music and lyrics or Tom Hooper’s wildly uneven direction than to the fact that somehow the wheels don’t come off entirely.
But enough faint praise.
There’s plenty to cheer in “Les Miserables,” not the least of which is the presence of some genuinely astonishing breakout performances. Eddie Redmayne – most recently seen as the eager young production assistant in “My Week With Marilyn” – delivers by far the most moving and memorable performance in the film as the young firebrand Marius, who, along with his fellow students, is caught up in France’s political upheavals in the 19th century. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, “Les Miserables” juxtaposes Marius’ fight for political justice with the more personal struggle of Jean Valjean, whom we meet in the film’s opening scene as an enslaved prisoner, played by an unrecognizably emaciated Hugh Jackman.
We also meet Valjean’s nemesis, Javert (Russell Crowe), the vengeful police inspector who, when Valjean breaks parole, will pursue him obsessively, even when the former convict becomes a respectable businessman and mayor.
It’s during these introductory sequences that “Les Miserables” is at its most wobbly, with Hooper editing frantically between and within scenes. Once he calms down he finds the film’s rhythm, which at its most gratifying finds Hooper simply resting the camera on individual singers as they deliver the tunes the show’s fans came to hear.
It’s at just such a moment when Redmayne swings for the rafters, singing the mournful ballad “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” an agonizing tribute to his fallen brothers that eerily conjures more recent losses, whether by way of the AIDS epidemic or more literal wars. Earlier, Redmayne sings a delightful trio with Amanda Seyfreid and Samantha Barks, who as love interests Cosette and Eponine display superb command of the upper registers the composers favor. (There are moments when Redmayne and Seyfriend resemble a modern-day Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in their fluting, bird-like lyricism.)
The centerpiece of a movie composed entirely of centerpieces belongs to Anne Hathaway, who as the tragic heroine Fantine sings another of the memorable numbers in a show of surprisingly few hummable tunes. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” – delivered in shattering close-up, the better to accentuate her haggard face, violently shorn hair and angular, half-starved body – is a melodramatic tour de force of vocal and physical expression, a Picasso-like abstract of voice, mouth and tears.
Ever since Hathaway and Jackman performed a fake-impromptu number on the Oscars a few years back, the prospect of them doing “Les Miserables” together has been the subject of anticipation, if not outright salivating. But their performances – while undoubtedly impressive – aren’t the high points of the production. Hooper made the commendable decision to have the cast perform the score live rather than lip-synch to pre-recorded music, which lends “Les Miserables” a welcome air of spontaneity and excitement (it’s more an opera than a musical, lacking any spoken dialogue of note).
But there are times when Hathaway’s and Jackman’s Broadway-baby voices – groomed to project from the proscenium arch – sound brassy and labored, especially when Jackman shares a number with Crowe, who possesses the mellow, earthy tones of a crooner rather than a belter. When he sings alongside Jackman’s practiced nasal vibrato (wow, can he nail that high note on “two-four-six-oh-ooooone!”), it’s as if Elvis Costello had unexpectedly crashed an Ethel Merman musical, with predictable chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter results.
Show-tune purists may prefer Jackman’s and Hathaway’s styles; I preferred Crowe’s moodier, more soulful delivery. But everyone will be cheered by the arrival of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the slatternly tavern keepers who leaven the unrelenting grimness of “Les Miserables” with welcome dashes of slapstick humor and crass bad taste.
Those moments of levity are sorely needed in a production weighed down by a crushing sense of bombast and self-importance. There’s little sense of dynamism or pacing, a fault both of the original score and Hooper’s unimaginative staging and camera work, which tend to underline, italicize and boldface every emotional beat.
It’s all Very Big, All the Time – which may serve the show’s die-hard fans well, but may not persuade those who have been immune to its hysterically pitched charms until now.
There’s no denying that “Les Miserables” ultimately succeeds in gathering up the audience – even its most resistant members – and transporting it on a stirring, swelling wave of feeling. But even when they’re dabbing away tears during the last of the big numbers, they might wonder whether they’re feeling less uplifted than run over.