While there's some value in making a slavish adaptation of a near-universally beloved stage musical, sticking to all the trappings of the play is a sure path to making the film feel like a translation rather than a similarly inspired production.
That's exactly the problem with director Tom Hooper's sturdy, flashy, yet ultimately inconsequential movie. He tries to outdo the stage production by going bigger, with flashier effects and huge-name actors in every role. Hooper's repertory, though, might have been better served by forgetting about the stage behemoth and drawing solely from Victor Hugo's pages. You know, the ones without the obnoxiously sung dialogue.
At the very least, an organic Les Miserables at least would have spared us having to suffer through Russell Crowe's singing.
Maybe I'm being too harsh. Crowe, while awkward, isn't all that bad. He toughs his way through a miscast performance, holding up his end as well as most anyone else.
I don't begrudge anyone who is fascinated by the film's every flourish. if you adore the play, this is your beloved object of desire on human growth hormone. The performances could have been hammy and forced, but instead are understated and elegant. Anne Hathaway, as a mother forced to disfigure her body and soul as she descends into a life of prostitution, is a standout, delivering probably the most impressive work of her career. Her haunting showing has stuck with me weeks after I saw the film, and goes a long way toward redeeming its cowardice.
And yeah, I think cowardice is the right term for Hooper's approach. It's as though the filmmaker was too afraid to take a chance after he had such success with The King's Speech. In dulling its edge and sticking so close to the stage, the movie lacks the Bastille-storming spirit of Hugo's source material. His movie feels like a pandering, disingenuous sleepwalk rather than a fiery-eyed rainmaker.
Les Miserable has no shortage of adaptations, and any new take on the material, especially at this level, needs to come with something new and bold to say. This filmed stage musical knows all the words, but can't hear the music.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boubill, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer. Directed by Tom Hooper. 160 minutes. Rated PG-13.