Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe. Written by William Nicholson. Directed by Tom Hooper. PG. 151 min. Opens Dec. 25.
There are no small emotions in Les Misérables, whose players are in thrall to magnificent passions, whether they’re young lovers, old crooks, or student revolutionaries facing down the army. They feel only agony or ecstasy—sometimes in the space of a single song. The extreme nature of the material requires a serious commitment from the performers and their director. The problem with this big-screen version of the iconic stage musical—itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s timeless novel about criss-crossing destinies in 19th-century France—is that the latter keeps hedging his bets. Fresh off a surprise Oscar win for The King’s Speech, the modestly talented Tom Hooper dithers over whether to embrace stylization or realism and ends up with a woebegone amalgam of both.
The decision to let his cast belt their songs live on-set instead of to a pre-recorded vocal track not only results in some dodgy performances, but clashes with the arch artificiality of the period backdrops. When Russell Crowe, playing the dogged, God-fearing antagonist Inspector Javert, croaks out his first lines against an obviously digitally enhanced shot of a chain gang reigning in a massive wooden ship, it’s not the thrilling opening it needs to be. Instead of immersing us in a time and place, it feels like we’ve been stranded in an artistic no man’s land.
The self-defeating decisions keep piling up. Casting Colm Wilkinson in the small role of the bishop who sets the heroic convict Jean Valjean on the path to righteousness is a nice acknowledgement of the show’s roots (Wilkinson was nominated for a Tony for his stage take on Valjean), but it also leaves the spectre of an icon hovering over Hugh Jackman’s competent but unremarkable take on the lead role.
Hooper lets Anne Hathaway’s doomed prostitute, Fantine, methodically sob her way through the supreme earworm “I Dreamed a Dream” in one intimate, unbroken take, and that’s a minor coup—a great self-contained scene. But that’s three minutes in a nearly three-hour movie. Lacking any spoken dialogue or connective narrative tissue, Les Misérables just toggles between songs like a jukebox. And since every number is meant to be a show-stopper, the cumulative effect is more numbing than rousing, never more so than in the disastrously staged “Master of the House,” featuring the mugging Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Hooper’s fidelity to his source material will please the fans—shrewd business sense when dealing with the most profitable musical of alltime—but ultimately the whole thing feels like a lavish karaoke party.