'Les Misérables' makes bloated, bombastic move from stage to screen

Dec. 28, 2012 @ 05:00 AM

Les Misérables

Grade: C +

Director: Tom Hooper

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hr. 37 min.

Around the 28-minute mark of director Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables,” Anne Hathaway performs Fantine’s plaintive rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hathaway’s melodic voice is plenty able, but its untrained imperfections actually enhance the broken soul of a mother driven to the depths of poverty and prostitution to pay her debts and care for her child. Over four single-take minutes filmed in static closeup, Hathaway channels with piercing precision the sorrow of an unforgiving God, the surrender to wasted dreams, the horror of facing her own shame and the disgust over “this Hell I'm living.” By the time tears stream on cue when anguishing over “the dreams that cannot be,” you're well into one of the most transcendent moments in recent cinematic history.

Unfortunately, that transcendence applies most potently to the film from which it emanates. Hooper’s choice to have the actors perform the music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer live on-camera instead of lip-synching to prerecorded tracks works well for the most part, particularly for Hathaway and a Tony-winning actor like Hugh Jackman as the bread-thieving protagonist Jean Valjean. On the other hand, Russell Crowe’s singing is as tinny and uptight as his Inspector Javert’s constipated application of the law. So, too, the upper register of Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as young lovers Cosette (Fantine’s daughter, raised by Valjean) and Marius, poster boy for The United Colours of Revolutionary France. And while I concede that British accents are the universal brogue for theatrical heft no matter the setting, I’m still struggling to understand why little Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) scampers around the streets of Paris warbling in a cockney accent.

But the fact that the characters sing, and sing, and sing ... and sing every word with bombastic gusto is but one side-effect of a bloated production that fails to shed any of its inherited traits on its way to the silver screen. “Les Misérables” is a 19th century novel conflated into a 1980s sung-through stage musical crammed into a distended motion picture with little reconfiguration for its new medium outside of big sets, computer graphics and unending extreme closeups that grow tiresome not long after they serve Hathaway so gloriously.

The narrative standing of the sniveling Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, shrouded by pancake makeup and grungy prosthetic teeth) remains as dubious as the film's historical import. As it stands, “Les Misérables” is as instructive about the 1832 Paris Uprising as Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” was about the United States’ entry into World War II ... or Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” is about the scourge of American slavery.