Sitting at the intersection of epic period piece and musical, Les Miserables seems peculiarly situated to reel in an award-winning director and an all-star ensemble cast and then get just a little bit too much out of everyone.
Here is Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of 2010’s The King’s Speech. There is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine. And all over the place is overacting and overwrought cinematography that turns one of the most beloved shows in Broadway history in to a film that, with all its bloat, falls well short of greatness.
The famed and long-running Broadway musical is itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, a rumination on mercy, remorse and regret that examines the toll of the excruciating moral choices faced by a series of unfortunate souls in post-Revolutionary France. Jean Valjean is the principal hero of the tale, a prisoner sentenced to hard labor who is freed after 19 years, but is hounded by his former jailers even after his release and finds the going difficult while carrying the permanent black mark of convict. Desperate, Valjean winds up stealing from a church and is caught, but a bishop grants him an invaluable reprieve, telling the authorities that he gave the stolen items to Valjean. The gesture of mercy inspires Valjean to live a better life -- to look for every opportunity to pay it forward.
And so he does. Valjean breaks his parole and assumes another identity, using the stolen goods to establish himself as a prominent factory owner years later. It is here that his attempts to outrun his past and live a better future come in to conflict. He again comes across Javert -- his captor and tormentor -- who, though he does not recognize Valjean at first, is tireless in his attempts to bring his former prisoner to justice again. He also meets Fantine, a former factory worker of his, who, when she lost her job, turned to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette. When Fantine meets a miserable end, Valjean, motivated by guilt for his role in Fantine's tragic demise and by his obsession with living a more righteous life, agrees to care for Cosette.
What follows is a near-constant push-pull between Valjean's duty-and-honor-bound impulse to provide for Cosette and the great big secret about his past. Despite repeated run-ins with the dogged Javert, he -- for a time -- manages to keep the truth hidden from his now-teenaged ward, who is played by Amanda Seyfried, but things boil over when she becomes entangled with a young revolutionary named Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne. This alters the terms of Valjean's self-imposed duty to Cosette. Suddenly, caring for her is no longer his primary obligaton. Rather, it is ensuring that her true love Marius will care for her once he is gone, a new dynamic that brings Valjean to a final showdown with Javert and exposes the truth about his past once and for all.
Tear-filled solos like "I Dreamed of Dream" (sung by Hathaway) and "On My Own" (sung by Samantha Banks, who plays Eponine) carry Les Miserables to the absolute apex of soaring melodrama; I suspect that this is what many musical (and Les Miz) fans will be looking for, especially out of a holiday movie-cum-event. But if you don't fit in either or both of those categories, prepare for your awe at the scope of the story to gradually give way to an annoyed overwhelmed feeling as the film drones on (and on and on).
I can't say whether I was more bothered by the story or some of the decisions made by Hooper and co. in adapting it for film. Suffice to say, I was bothered by both. The story itself is difficult to take, especially as it stretches well past two hours in length, because it is so obnoxiously elemental -- so focused on forcing its characters in to impossible choices and then milking it for schmaltzy aria after schmaltzy aria. It also takes overtly Book of Job-ian glee in the despair of its players, fixating constantly on religious imagery and a close relationship with God as a cure-all for their sheer misery. (Life got you down? Don't worry, there's a barricade covered in bunting with all your dead friends waiting somewhere over the rainbow.)
Narrative aside, there were mistakes in the construction of the film as well. Crowe and Seyfried in particular stuck out for their lack of singing ability next to the likes of Jackman and Banks, who, you know, have actually done this sort of thing on Broadway before. The ostensible stars on the whole were disappointing relative to the supporting players -- Banks, Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who played the reprehensible Thenardiers, all taking their turns stealing scenes from the more celebrated actors opposite them. Finally, there was the decision to contrast the grand, sweeping shots of 19th century France with tight, just-a-bit-too-intimate closeups on Valjean, Fantine, Javert and the rest so you could be sure to pick up every ounce of acting exerted in each scene.
The music will linger long after you exit the theatre, of course, but the hummable moments were too often followed by uncomfortably distending stars, stories and camerawork. I suppose this might be the adaptation Broadway fans have long been waiting for, but to me -- a semi-serious moviegoer with no particular inclination toward musicals -- it was a bit too much of a slog.