By the time the credits roll on Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of the stage musical “Les Misérables,” the audience is well acquainted with every inch of Hugh Jackman’s face.
Sometimes, that’s a good thing. You hear every word plainly and you share every emotion that passes across that expressive face. But the obsessive close-ups highlight the melodramatic aspects of the story and downplay the complex web of relationships and themes that structure the source material.
The movie adaptation is based on the sprawling 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, via the incredibly popular 1987 musical version by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alan Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. The screenplay, which trims the material to two-and-a-half hours, is by William Nicholson. It’s essentially the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children.
Newcomer Samantha Banks as Éponine is the standout performer of the all-star ensemble cast. Her rendition of the new Broadway standard “On My Own” is deeply moving and beautifully delivered. Sung as the lovelorn Éponine wanders the rainy streets of Paris serving as a go-between for Marius and Cosette, the song is an example of Hooper’s work at its finest. The intimacy of the camera work matches the intimacy of the musical moment and the nuances of Banks’ fine acting.
On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring some badly needed comic relief to the movie as the cynical Thénardiers. “Master of the House,” a comic inventory of the many ways they fleece their unwary guests, is a delightful counterpoint to the otherwise earnest proceedings. Their highly effective performances flesh out both the couple’s considerable charm and their significant menace.
The three leads (Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine) also offer strong performances, but their impact is lessened to various degrees by their limitations as performers and by Hooper’s work as director. Hooper made movie musical history by having the actors sing live on the set instead of lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack. This often brings an emotional intensity to the material, but sometimes undermines the musical demands of Schönberg’s intricate and complicated score.
For example, Crowe subtly humanizes Javert, capturing his stern ruthlessness as well as his profound belief in how human and divine justice interact in an orderly society. Hooper highlights these moments with some stunning cinematography: Javert’s duel with Valjean in the thrilling “Confrontation” at Fantine’s deathbed, his unfeeling horseback rides among the poor of Paris and especially his delivery of “Stars” while pacing on the ramparts high above the city.
But there’s a critical problem with his vocal performance as Javert. While Crowe has a pleasant singing voice (he’s been the lead singer for several bands), he’s not the Broadway belter the role requires. He has pitch and rhythm problems in the opening scenes and in his big solo numbers, his vocal performances fall flat. This robs his excellent work of much of its power. These problems could probably have been worked out in the studio, possibly even with the discreet use of some dubbing.
Hathaway’s performance of the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream” brings out the considerable pathos of the number, but misses the larger dramatic point. Hathaway has an unexpectedly powerful singing voice that matches her rich talents as an actor, but Hooper lets her get lost in the melodrama of the moment, missing the crucial spirit of defiance that underscores the number and propels Fantine into her final act of rebellion against her cruel fate.
Jackman offers a stirring performance as Jean Valjean. He rises to the vocal challenges of the role with apparent ease and resists the temptation to turn Valjean into a one-dimensional saint. Yet his fine performance is frequently undermined by Hooper’s relentless close-ups, which tear the character out of his cinematic context, and Hooper’s continually swirling cameras, which pull focus from Jackman’s extraordinary acting and singing.