Three decades ago, the notion of a stage musical adapted from a towering literary classic like Les Misérables prompted a great deal of sputtering from critics. Reviews were generally mediocre to poor, with many scoffing openly at the way that Victor Hugo’s enormously complex work had been trivialized. That battle has long since been lost, however. So let’s take the musical’s enduring hold over millions of people worldwide as a given (for the record, I consider it a goofy kitsch-a-thon that features half a dozen first-rate songs), and focus strictly on the quality of the adaptation. Has it made the transition from stage to screen with panache, ardor, vitality? Is it likely to please the faithful while indoctrinating the newcomer?
In a word, no. Even if you consider Les Misérables one of the great musicals of our time, you’ll have to be awfully forgiving to embrace what Tom Hooper—a director with no apparent visual sense, who somehow won an Oscar two years ago for The King’s Speech—has done with it. There’s bombast a-plenty in the film’s gargantuan sets and the camera’s CGI swooping, but Hooper can’t establish a simple cinematic rhythm to save his life; to paraphrase one of the lyrics, “Every cut that he makes is a dagger in me.” Only when he elects to hold an actor in close-up for an entire song does he achieve a modicum of power.
Unfortunately, that tactic—along with his theoretically admirable decision to have everyone sing live on set, rather than lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks—has its own significant drawback: Almost none of the movie stars he’s cast can sing. Anne Hathaway, in the brief but pivotal role of Fantine, tears into the show’s signature tune, “I Dreamed a Dream,” with savage gusto, but Hugh Jackman, despite a wealth of musical-theater experience, is out of his vocal range as tormented hero Jean Valjean, and Russell Crowe’s frog-throated performance as the antagonist, Inspector Javert, is simply an embarrassment. When stage vet Samantha Barks turns up about midway through as the lovelorn Eponine (a role she played for a year in the London production), the relief at seeing someone boasting genuine vocal chops is palpable.