Film review: Les Misérables (12A)

King’s Speech director Tom Hooper tries to put some grit into the blockbuster musical, but the result is a bombastic, overlong mess

Les Misérables (12A)

Directed by: Tom Hooper

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Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmaybe, Amanda Seyfried

Star rating: * *

IN FOLLOWING up the Oscar-garlanded The King’s Speech with a big screen adaptation of Les Misérables, director Tom Hooper has done something surprising: he’s made the musical equivalent of a Transformers movie. Bombastic, overblown, overlong, needlessly convoluted and full of simplistic characters, some terrible performances and a constant, cochlea-cracking racket on the soundtrack, the film is yet another example of an inexplicably successful property that’s been turned into a punishing piece of cinema to which millions will undoubtedly flock because millions are clearly suckers for event entertainment in which relentless spectacle no longer has to be tethered to a compellingly told story. I say this – in case you hadn’t already guessed – as someone who is not among the 60 million-strong throng that the official Les Misérables website proudly boasts has seen the stage show since its English-language debut in London in 1985 (I haven’t read the Victor Hugo doorstopper upon which it’s loosely based either, in case you’re wondering).

Coming to it relatively fresh (bar the odd caterwauling cover version of I Dreamed a Dream), it’s hard to see quite why the show has endured, given that it appears to be an opera for those who don’t like opera and a musical for those who don’t like music. The latter may actually be to the film’s advantage given that music is the last thing one thinks of when confronted with the flat, discordant notes emanating from Russell Crowe’s mouth. Of the many big stars Hooper has wrangled for this all-singing tale of rebellion, rivalry, redemption and romance, it is Crowe’s abilities that are the most sorely exposed – both by the original show’s rather tuneless orchestration and by Hooper’s decision to have his actors perform the songs live on set rather than lip-synching to a cast recording.

To be fair to Crowe, though, even the Broadway-seasoned Hugh Jackman struggles to wrap his tonsils around the film’s uninspired, exposition-heavy lyrics. As former convict Jean Valjean, he gets to deliver some of the more anguished songs, and at times he sounds as if he’s scratched himself somewhere delicate with Wolverine’s adamantium claws. The live singing – along with the mud-splattered set designs, the artfully grimy make-up, the grungy costumes and the preponderance of hand-held close-up shots of the actors’ faces – are Hooper’s attempts at injecting some grit and verisimilitude into a what is otherwise an indisputably hokey and melodramatic tale. Nevertheless, it’s telling that the live aspect only really feels advantageous to the film during a more traditional show-stopping moment early on: namely when Anne Hathaway’s Fantine belts out I Dreamed A Dream in full lip-trembling wench mode. Her already much-mocked performance – not least by Hathaway herself in an amusing Funny or Die sketch – is the best thing about the film, in part because it’s one of the few moments where Les Misérables transcends the film’s faux-realistic approach and ends up feeling like a proper musical, the type in which talented performers doing their best routines go all out to dazzle the audience that has turned up to see them.

Elsewhere, though, the live singing mostly feels like an artistic folly, largely because the patchy quality of the performances fails to harmoniously connect the gritty aesthetic with the heightened emotions the characters are supposedly feeling. It’s difficult to care, for instance, about the relentless pursuit of Valjean by the officious lawman Jalvert (Crowe) when the crime for which Valjean is atoning is made to seem so insignificant by the contrived design of the film. Consequently, their antagonistic relationship doesn’t so much anchor the film as weigh it down with intolerable dullness every time their paths cross.

Tedium also reigns courtesy of Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as star-crossed lovers Cosette and Marius, whose fate is similarly undercut by the film’s jarring style. Aside from Hathaway, it seems, the only actor who seems properly able to deliver a dramatic performance with her voice – one that’s at least commensurate with overwrought nature of such forsaken characters – is newcomer Samantha Barks, cast here as the selfless Éponine (that she’s a veteran of the stage show is, again, telling).

Elsewhere, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen – seemingly on loan from Tim Burton’s similarly problematic take on Sweeney Todd – turn up as a pair of grotesques whose paths also cross Valjean’s in ways that will also prove detrimental to his otherwise saintly existence. Their presence provides some light relief from the misery of story, if not quite the misery of actually watching it for 157 very long minutes. Alas, as that story eventually draws to a close amid the maelstrom of the 1832 Paris uprising, Hooper’s film stands resilient, not as a revolutionary, form-advancing take on the movie musical, but as a defiant adaptation of a monolithic success. How depressing.