Les Misérables is a gargantuan effort
Starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Rated PG.
In case you don’t already know it, Les Misérables is the French term for people dragged to this 157-minute date movie. It’s also the name of Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page novel, which has spawned at least 18 movies and TV productions in the past century, not counting the 1985 stage musical from Claude-Michel Schönberg and others, who saw their work go Anglo about five years later.
The gargantuan piece has been running somewhere ever since, and its most fervent fans probably consider it the greatest musical Andrew Lloyd Weber never wrote. Well, the music here also borrows liberally from Mozart, Disney cartoons, and, I think, Jethro Tull. And, like Weber, there is roughly one memorable melody for every seven songs; those only stick through cloying repetition. Most of the singing is in the monotonous recitativo style that links arias in real operas. The risible recitation barely stops in the version grandiosely cinematized by Tom Hooper, better known for human-scaled, Brit-centric work like The King’s Speech and The Damned United.
Unusually, Hooper asked all the actors to sing their own lines, live and on-set—a risk that paid off for Anne Hathaway, who kills, musically speaking. (The title of her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream”, says everything you need to know about the crushing literality of the libretto.) Hathaway’s consumptive Jeanne d’Arc character leaves behind adorable Cosette, eventually played by alien-eyed Amanda Seyfried. The child is adopted by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has been paroled after serving 19 years as a galley slave for stealing a loaf of bread. Still at sea is Russell Crowe, straining his voice, and dignity, as Inspector Javert, who just won’t back off on Dr. Richard Kimball—I mean, Monsieur Valjean.
There is some jarring, if necessary, comic relief provided by grungy pub rats played by Helena Bonham Carter and Francophile Sacha Baron Cohen, famous since Talladega Nights for admiring the home of “democracy, existentialism, and the ménage à trois”. Speaking of third wheels, good old Valjean starts to feel de trop after Cosette meets Marius (My Week With Marilyn ’s strong-voiced Eddie Redmayne), a student leader of the 1823 rebellion.
The movie spends its final hour at the barricades, and damned if you won’t feel you’ve done the same.