There are moments early on in Les Miserables when viewers may feel as if 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 megahit 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.
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.
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.