‘Les Misérables’ runs on emotion and star power | 3 stars

12/25/2012 6:31 PM

05/16/2014 8:36 PM

And the winner of the Great Aussie Smackdown is Hugh Jackman.

“Les Misérables” the stage musical has never been about stars. It’s about the show. But movies are different. Producers don’t want to spend a kazillion dollars making a movie without a reasonable chance of seeing a return on their investment.

And that means stars — in this case Jackman and his countryman Russell Crowe.

In the film (opening Christmas Day), Jackman plays Jean Valjean, the reconstructed secular saint who dedicates his life to selfless acts of kindness after enduring 19 years of imprisonment. And Crowe is his nemesis, the monomaniacal Javert, a policeman who pursues Valjean with a vehemence that suggests there are no other petty thieves or parole-breakers in all of France.

Their performances are at the center of director Tom Hooper’s often impressive, sometimes clumsy film. The actors — particularly Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne — carry the day, despite Hooper’s often claustrophobic camera angles and occasional bursts of mincemeat editing.

Jackman is a natural song-and-dance man: open-eyed, charismatic, optimistic and gifted with a singing voice suited to the material. Crowe is different: brooding, simmering, an artistic descendent of Marlon Brando whose rock-singer’s voice makes his performance an epic struggle independent of the story. Give the guy credit: He gives it his best shot.

There is much to admire in this film, which remains faithful to the source material and adds a few elements from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel that aren’t in the stage show. (Playwright William Nicholson shares screenwriting credit with composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, book-writer Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer.)

We see, for example, the Elephant of the Bastille, where in the novel the street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) sleeps at night. Indeed, the production overflows with eye candy, from production designer Eve Stewart’s impressive sets re-creating the streets of Paris to Paco Delgado’s detailed costumes that portray aristocrats, street beggars and everyone in between.

But someone forgot to tell Hooper he was directing an epic. Best known for “The King’s Speech,” Hooper has spent most of his career directing for television. That may account for his inordinate reliance on close-ups, through which he narrows the scope of a story that should be remembered for its grandeur and historic sweep.

He comes close in “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as flag-waving student revolutionaries mount the funeral bier of populist leader General Lamarque as it moves through the streets. He attempts a bit of spectacle during the street battle between revolutionaries and guardsmen, but the quick, haphazard cuts render the skirmish virtually incoherent.

For the most part he settles for close shots and handheld camera work. Seldom do we see principals singing duets in a single frame. A muted color palette seems designed to tell the story in the shadows and beneath a perpetually overcast sky.

Hooper does give us some impressive CGI-enhanced panoramic views in the early going. In the opening scene, Valjean is among what appears to be hundreds of prisoners manning impossibly long ropes to pull a damaged ship into dock. Later, when Valjean tears up his parole papers and tosses them into the wind, the camera rise up for an aerial shot that shows the scraps floating over an infinitely deep valley. At times his camera takes flight for angles that wouldn’t be possible without computer-generated imagery.

Hugo was addressing history and social issues in his massive novel, but the show is a tale of redemption as Valjean, brutalized by prison, swears to change his life after a benevolent bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Valjean role onstage) shows him compassion.

He becomes a mayor and a factory owner under an assumed name but is forced to reveal his true identity when another man is falsely accused of his crimes. He vows to the dying Fantine (Hathaway) — a seamstress forced into prostitution — that he will raise her daughter, Cosette, as his own.

Valjean liberates Cosette with cash from the comically avaricious Then-ardiers (played deadpan-yet-over-the-top by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and embarks on a life of discreet gentility, always keeping an eye out for the fanatical Javert. The young Cosette is played by Isabelle Allen who, like Huttlestone, is a picturesque child. These kids look like cherubs on a Victorian greeting card.

Years later on the streets of Paris, the now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) spots Marius (Redmayne), one of the student revolutionaries, and the two are immediately smitten.

Redmayne, by the way, possesses the best voice in the cast and also shows himself to be a skilled actor — passionate, yet subtle.

Hathaway emaciated herself to play Fantine and is extraordinary. Her stunning performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one case where the use of close-ups — and the much-ballyhooed decision to let the actors sing “live” during each take — pays off.

Her supporting actress Oscar nomination seems assured, and Jackman and Redmayne should be recognized for actor and supporting actor as well.

This is high-end melodrama — sentimental and full of astounding coincidences — but the material works. I’ve seen the stage show several times, and the film manages to do what the stage version always does: It pulls honest emotional reactions out of the viewer. At an advance screening you could hear people sniffling and blowing noses.

Hooper’s problem is that he doesn’t trust the material and oversells some of the numbers. But occasionally he does something right. “One Day More” is the big ensemble number that closes Act 1, and Hooper translates it beautifully for the film, cutting between Valjean and Javert, Marius and Cosette and Eponine (Samantha Barks, who played the character in London) and the Thenardiers as the music rises to a crescendo.

It would be the perfect place for the film to take an intermission. But movies don’t have intermissions anymore, even when they clock in at 160 minutes. They just plow ahead, bombarding viewers with aural and visual stimuli. Those who love “Les Miz” are not likely to be disappointed.

Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.

‘Lay meez-air- AH-bluh’

That’s how to pronounce the title, says Gayle Levy, an associate professor of French at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. But what does it mean?

“ ‘Les misérables’ are the destitute, the poor, the wretched,” says Levy, who specializes in 19th- and 20th-century French literature.

For author Victor Hugo, she says, “they are the poor exploited by the rich and the powerful, by society, but also by an unjust judicial system that can help transform the unfortunate into the infamous (i.e. turn someone who has fallen on hard times into a criminal).”

WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING

• 

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone:

“No one expects gutsy filmmaking in a musical. But that’s just what ‘King’s Speech’ Oscar winner Tom Hooper delivers. There’s no spoken dialogue! Everyone sings! All the time! For nearly three hours! Think rock opera, like the Who’s ‘Tommy.’ If that drives you nuts see the stupid ‘Twilight’ finale again.”

http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/les-miserables-20121221 http://ec.tynt.com/b/rw?id=bbJxak64Kr4kEzacwqm_6l=rollingstone http://ec.tynt.com/b/rf?id=bbJxak64Kr4kEzacwqm_6l=RollingStone•  Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times:

“This isn’t a great movie musical, but it’s a good one, with a couple of truly transcendent performances.”

• 

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “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.”

Videos

Join the discussion

is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service