Reviewer's rating: 6/10
Les Mis: much more than a musical
Les Miserables has a few missteps, but is rewarding for those willing to engage with it.PT2M41S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2b9pw 620 349 December 12, 2012
With its Oscar campaign gaining inevitable momentum, this latest adaptation of Victor Hugo's colossal 1862 novel wears its awards ambitions loudly and proudly on its sleeve like a bloated badge of honour. Short of guns blazing and trumpets blaring, director Tom Hooper - who wooed the Academy last year with his impeccable breakout hit, The King's Speech - knows precisely which buttons to push to get voters' attention.
Hugh Jackman, Australia's bona fide song-and-dance man par excellence, is a shoo-in as the central character of Jean Valjean: a man given a brutal 17-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. In true heroic fashion, he jumps parole and re-emerges, some 17 years later, as a fine, upstanding gentleman in every sense, and a savvy businessman to boot. The obvious parallel of his character's journey to redemption - echoing Australia's own convict past - may help explain why Cameron Mackintosh's 1985 musical famously drew a record crowd of 125,000 to see it performed live on Australia Day in 1989 in Sydney.
Even diehard fans may suffer fatigue.
Still, for every Jackman we need a Crowe, here playing Valjean's relentless pursuer, tough French cop Javert. While Jackman's tonsils were never in doubt (despite a mind-numbing 150 minutes of relentlessly sung verse), Crowe's vocal flair comes as a surprise.
True, his voice is noticeably thinner in projection, but with a deep baritone at his disposal, his is physically at least an impressive match for Jackman's, and one that echoes his musical heritage (Crowe started out in musicals, including a turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Witnessing the pair finally battle it out on screen together does, while veering towards pantomime at times, carry its own significance.
The rub here, though, is the vocals were all recorded as they were sung - live - as the actors performed on set (or, rather, with green screen, since many of the visuals are clearly CGI). Not to be outdone, Anne Hathaway gives her own scene-stealing turn as Fantine, the young mum thrown out to pasture (or rather, rot). She famously allowed her hair to be shorn on screen, while giving Susan Boyle a run for her money with the grand but mournful epic I Dreamed a Dream.
No one goes quietly in this battle of wills, in which every single line is sung with operatic pretensions. Even diehard fans may start to suffer fatigue at various points. Yet for all its overblown grand designs, there are genuinely engaging surprises to be had. My Week with Marilyn's Eddie Redmayne elicits impressively tender expression in song (Amanda Seyfried manages to hold her own in response), while fellow Brits Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are a riot as a couple of no-good landlords robbing everyone blind. Their central performance in the tavern provides the film's highlight, and some much-needed comic relief.
Positioned as a strong contender among the Boxing Day deluge of releases, Hooper's film is likely to hold as wide an appeal as its source material. More than 60 million people have seen this tale of the 1832 Parisian uprising performed live on stage. There have been at least 60 film and television adaptations, not to mention its global reach, where it has been translated into dozens of languages, and reworked and reinterpreted endlessly for radically different markets. If only Hugo could have known. Although the tome has since been held up as a prime mover of 19th-century literature, at the time it was attacked and roundly dismissed (rather like Mackintosh's original musical adaptation, in fact).
One could argue that Les Mis on screen is much the same as it is on stage: often derided for its critical shortcomings, but jubilantly embraced by its audience, who will no doubt flock to see this in droves.
What surprised me about this affair wasn't that it was entirely sung, nor that its main cast could clearly hit the notes required, but how it all feels rather predictable.
Visually, the camera swoops and stays tight on faces; the modest Parisian set reminds one of its stage origins, and the thing refuses to wrap, even as its running time exceeds all reasonable expectations.
Like the stage version (which runs even longer), this is Broadway entertainment away from the confines of theatre, but told with all of the stage's limitations intact.
Rated M, 158 minutes, opens Boxing Day
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne