There’s nothing subtle about the epic Les Misérables, whether in Victor Hugo’s original book, the musical phenomenon that kicked off in the 80s, or the film now playing in theaters. Director Tom Hooper follows up his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech with a sweeping take on the musical version of Les Misérables, which tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his decades-long effort to find redemption following a 20-year prison stint.
Throughout the story, Valjean faces pursuit from Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who dogmatically believes that Valjean’s criminal past means that he’ll always be a criminal. One of the people impacted by Valjean’s attempt at reformation is Fantine, a factory worker forced into prostitution when she is fired from Valjean’s factory. As she is dying, she asks Valjean to take care of her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child; Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Years later, Valjean watches as Cosette falls in love with young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) as Paris falls into a revolution.
Les Misérables is such a sprawling story that any attempt to film it seems doomed to fail on some level. Hooper’s take certainly has its own set of issues. Hooper is a competent, somewhat boring director. He takes some artistic chances with this adaptation, namely the decision for the entire cast to sing live on camera. That choice in particular works for the most part; in the hands of Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne and Samantha Barks (Eponine) in particular, the vocals include a heightened sense of drama. Where it fails is with Crowe, who already has a somewhat thankless role with Javert. While the cast as a whole delivers a variety of musical backgrounds to their individual performances, Crowe’s rock-singer background fails him in this environment.
Hooper also insists on showing the majority of the film in close-ups. This works for some numbers – “I Dreamed a Dream” in particular is a high point, thanks to Hathaway’s bravura performance – but often makes the film feel claustrophobic.
Still, the story of Les Misérables is generally regarded as one of the best of all time, and for good reason. Even with Hooper’s mistakes, the story still works, all while managing to deliver some of the best film performances of the year.