The story is basically a cat and mouse chase around France, with Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean hunted by relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) after Valjean fails to check in with the authorities following his release from prison. The entire film follows Jean Valjean, a man whose only crime was to steal a single loaf of bread, as he attempts to stay out of Javert's clutches while proving himself a decent human being trying to do the best with his life given the circumstances. He embraces God, conceals his identity and becomes a respected citizen, and then promises a dying prostitute (Anne Hathaway) he'll care for her young daughter - a girl Jean Valjean devotes his life to raising. It's a simple, touching story, spread out over decades and involving colorful supporting characters who pop in and out of the story while weaving their way into the plot via song.
Les Misérables is a frustrating, gorgeous, and even at times brilliant movie musical. Why frustrating? Because while overall Tom Hooper's decision to have his actors sing live on the set worked, when the experiment goes wrong...well, it does so disastrously. Hooper (The King's Speech) cast big name actors in the pivotal lead roles with mixed results. Tony Award winner Hugh Jackman is spectacular in the lead role of Jean Valjean (also known as prisoner 24601), and his physical transformation to play a starving prisoner who appears to be knocking on death's door is stunning. Also well cast is Anne Hathaway, surprisingly moving as the pitiful and unfortunate Fantine, a single mom who turns to selling her body after being forced out of her factory job by jealous, catty women co-workers. Hathaway's heartbreaking performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" features off-key moments and hiccups of grief, but it's genuine and emotional and a powerful performance that marks one of the best scenes of her career.
Also proving wise casting choices were Eddie Redmayne as Marius (his "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is one of the top three songs of the film), scene-stealing stage veteran Samantha Barks as Epinone, and the comic relief duo of Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. All acquit themselves well in supporting roles, and with Barks in particular audiences are left wanting much more time with her onscreen.
However, Hooper did make a couple of casting missteps in major roles. First, Amanda Seyfried's voice is shrill to the point of irritating as the grown-up version of Fantine's daughter, Cosette. Unfortunately every word in Les Misérables is sung rather than spoken, so no matter how talented an actress Seyfried is, her singing voice was like listening to a cat screech while accompanied by fingernails on a chalkboard. And then we come to Russell Crowe... Poor Crowe was way, way out of his league in Les Misérables, looking as uncomfortably out of place as he sounded. None of his numbers conveyed any power or emotion, and of all the actors in this film adaptation, Crowe was the one most in need of having his songs tweaked in post-production. Crowe's numbers brought the film to jarring stops, with his croaky voice unable to capture the depth of emotion needed to tackle this pivotal role.
Still, Les Misérables has its moments of beauty, and the costumes, sets, and lighting are first-rate. Powerful, moving, and anchored by strong performances by Jackman, Hathaway, and Redmayne, Les Misérables is an ambitious musical that, overall, lives up to expectations. It won't win any new fans to the musical genre, but it also shouldn't alienate those who support big screen musicals.
Les Misérables was directed by Tom Hooper and is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2012