As his follow up to the Academy Award winning “King’s Speech,” Tom Hooper takes on the epic Victor Hugo story of “Les Miserables.” It is clear from start to finish that this is Hooper’s attempt at another Oscar. The sheer scale and emotion of it make that unmistakable.
Set during 19th-century France, the story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who after breaking his parole spends decades on the run from Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). While trying to live a respectable life as a factory owner, Valjean becomes the caretaker for factory worker Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried).
It's the definition of an epic movie. There's a large ensemble cast, vast sets and intense show stopping numbers. Hooper wants the attention of the Academy, but this isn't as effective as his last outing.
Be forewarned, this is a musical all the way to its core. There is very little traditional dialogue. The primary communication here is singing, with only brief breaks for seconds of dialogue. At times it works, but it begins to wear on you as the film progresses, making you pray that someone will finally have a spoken conversation.
Some of the actors flourish in this style. Anne Hathaway, for example, steals the show as Fantine. Her appearance is relatively brief within the scope of the two and a half hour film, but the story would lack much of its emotional weight without a strong performance in that role. Also delivering an amazing performance was Samantha Barks, who nails her solos as Eponine, a role she played previously in the 25th Anniversary Concert of the musical. This was only first film, but with a performance like the one she gives here this likely won't be the last we hear from her. However, while Hathaway and Barks are bright spots, they can't shine bright enough to cover the films flaws.
Russell Crowe is by far the weakest of the main cast. His performance lacks the necessary punch to make him a strong villain, largely because of his singing. His voice isn't horrible, but compared to the rest of the cast it's not strong enough. Crowe has a history of singing in rock bands, and you can hear a little of that here, but “Les Mis” is not the best fit for that kind of voice.
On top of Crowe's performance, there are some odd style choices made by Hooper that end up distracting from the performances and seem to be there to make the audience uncomfortable. If you've seen the trailer, you've seen the tight shot of Anne Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” Most of the big numbers use this style. It floods the screen with emotion, but that emotion isn't a positive one. All the main characters are miserable, hence the title, and you see that in spades in those tight shots.
There are some bizarre story choices as well, that require the characters to become morons. Characters make decisions that make no sense, particularly in life or death situations. It's as if certain characters begin to think that they're better than death, but in a story like this, everyone is at risk of not making it to the end credits. However, to be fair, I came into the film cold and don't know how much of that stays true to the original version of the musical.
Hooper proved with “King's Speech” that he could make an excellent movie. Unfortunately, “Les Mis” is not one. It has its moments, but they're not enough. It offers a few good performances and some songs that you will have stuck in your head upon leaving the theater, but some odd creative choices prevent this film from living up to all the hype. 3 out of 5 stars.
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