Movie Review: Les Misérables
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
The movie adaptation of “Les Misérables,” one of the most popular musicals of all time, will probably do well at the box office, regardless of what critics say. But the happy news is that director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) has managed to move the action to the big screen without much of a hitch. And even better news: Hugh Jackman makes a great Jean Valjean; Anne Hathaway captures the vulnerable pathos of Fantine; Russell Crowe holds his own as the obsessive Javert; and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen bring delicious deviltry as the crooked Thénardiers.
As with the original stage musical, the movie version eschews the subtleties of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece for big moments of revelation and redemption. But that’s the nature of musicals, both on stage and on screen.
And if you like big set pieces, then Hooper’s version will be more than satisfying. The opening scene, which focuses on an almost unrecognizable Jackman as Valjean, begins with an overhead shot that makes the prisoners look like ants. But the camerawork, which unmistakably mimics the notion of God looking down upon the wretched of the Earth, eventually focuses on the pained, defiant face of Valjean, who has been imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Overseeing it all is the would-be worldly usurper of God, Javert (Crowe).
Nearly every “Les Misérables” fan on the Internet has been asking whether Crowe manages to create a believable Javert. And at first, it is a bit startling to see the easily recognizable Crowe belting out songs that threaten to make Valjean’s life miserable. But Crowe has often had a brusque menace to his demeanor, and that only enhances his interpretation of vindictive Javert.
As Fantine, the former factory worker forced into prostitution, Hathaway is the big revelation. She brings so much emotion to her role that it’s hard to keep a dry eye. The initial scene of her being forced to have sex has much more emotional impact than you might expect. And part of that has to do with Hooper’s manipulation of the camera to highlight Fantine’s anguish.
Some critics will say that Hooper uses far too many close-ups. But Hooper is trying to bring emotion to the forefront — to let us not only hear the anguish in song but also see it in the faces. In other words, there are no cheap balcony seats with obstructed views in this version of “Les Misérables.”
Amid all the gloom and doom, Hooper makes the most of the light moments, especially when focusing on the notorious Thénardiers, played by Cohen and Bonham Carter. They’re the unscrupulous innkeepers who exploit Cosette, the orphan of Fantine, and they clearly relish their over-the-top moments as they try to fleece anyone within arm’s distance.
Amanda Seyfried, who plays the adult Cosette, seems oddly out of place here. That’s a surprise, since she held her own in the 2008 musical “Mamma Mia!” But Eddie Redmayne, with his powerful voice, fares much better as Cosette’s suitor, Marius Pontmercy.
“Les Misérables” has already received four Golden Globe nominations, including two for Jackman and Hathaway. And it’s sure to do well when the Oscar nominees are announced in January.
It’s hopelessly old-fashioned, of course. It even explores the notion of shame — something that has been disappearing from our culture for the past couple of decades.
And that’s a shame.