From the moment “Les Miserables” begins, it’s clearly going to be a larger than life experience. Director Tom Hooper sweeps the audience through a larger than life prison scene, with rows upon rows of inmates pulling an impossibly large ship into its dock. Hooper’s direction promises spectacle to rival that of any stage production.
Luckily for him, he’s not alone.
“Les Miserables” the film is based on the musical of the same name, which is in turn based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. Like a lot of great stories, this one revolves and thrives on its characters. The action is moved forward thanks to a pair of entwined relationships.
The first revolves around the antagonism between a prison guard turned inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe) and former convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman); the second involves the swooning between Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young would-be revolutionary who belongs to a group led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).
Of the two, it is Javert and Valjean whose story turns out to be the more engaging. To their credit, Seyfried and Redmayne do justice to the roles of Cosette and Marius. Redmayne’s sincerity in both singing and acting compliments Seyfried’s more traditional trilling, but their romance lacks a spark, no matter how many fancy camera tricks Tom Hooper can pull out of a hat.
Meanwhile, Javert is pursuing Valjean through 19th century France with a passion bordering on obsession. Crowe is a surprise hit as the justice-seeking inspector, holding his own in a cast that includes seasoned actors of the musical stage. Sadly, Jackman’s Valjean is not as memorable.
Jackman is not a bad Valjean, but neither is he a great one. Throughout the film, he gives off the air of someone who’s holding back, or can’t quite reach the emotion he’s looking for. Hooper’s direction and maximalist approach to camerawork often works against his performance as well. While delivering “What Have I Done” in the film’s first act, Jackman comes closest to capturing the essence of the character of Valjean. Unfortunately, as he does so, Hooper shows him pacing up and down a hallway. With no subtlety, this brings the character’s inner struggle out into the open damaging what could otherwise be a great sequence.
The one star Hooper’s direction can’t seem to touch is Anne Hathaway, which is all the better. She brings to life the role of Fantine – factory worker, prostitute and eventual martyr – in one of the films sure to be iconic sequences. Hathaway turns the show stopping “I Dreamed a Dreamed” into a literal showstopper, bringing the pain and anguish of her character crashing into the audience and delivering a stunning performance.
It’s a shame Fantine is not in the story for long, as her death is the catalyst for Valjean to rescue a young Cosette from her caretakers, the Thernadiers (the energetic Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who stir and stink up the air in just the right way). Valjean raises Cosette as best as a man on the run can, and eventually she meets Marius who is already friends with the Thernadiers’ daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks).
Barks is no stranger to the role of Eponine, having played the character on stage – including in the 25th Anniversary Concert of “Les Miserables.” The transition from stage to film does not detract from her performance. If anything, she’s free to bring an intimacy and softness to her voice that brilliantly shows Eponine’s love and, at times, manic obsession with Marius. As her time on screen comes to a close and Barks begins to sing “A Little Fall of Rain,” all that build-up results in one of the film’s most emotional moments.
There are a number of other great performances in the film, particularly Aaron Tveit and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, but they can be lost under the heel of the film’s direction. Including the aforementioned problems, Hooper has a habit of swinging the camera from point to point. All you can do is try to keep track of the characters onscreen. And while his choice to record all singing live was inspired and produced great results, his habit of including loud background noises sometimes detracts from the music and lyrics.
But even those things can be forgiven thanks to strength of the film’s actors and characters. “Les Miserables” is still a beautiful film that manages to rise above some unfortunate directing choices and deliver an emotional experience worthy of the story’s history.