It’s Christmas Day and across the land musical theater fanatics are storming the barricades to see the long-awaited film adaptation of the Broadway musical extravaganza, “Les Misérables.”
Will they be disappointed? Probably not. Tom Hopper’s version of the popular show is extremely faithful to the source material. It’s a very good production but falls a little short of being great.
“Les Misérables” tells a tale as old as time — or at least as old as 1862 when it was penned by Victor Hugo. The story begins in 1815 with France caught up in revolution. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been set free on parole for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. He is given his papers by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who warns him to stay on the straight and narrow.
Unable to find a job due to his criminal past, Valjean breaks parole and with help from a generous priest he disappears. Valjean reemerges eight years later as a successful factory owner and town mayor. Which brings us to the first great question of Le Miz: Why didn’t Valjean take those silver candlesticks and hop the first boat to England?
Meanwhile at Valjean’s factory, a young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) loses her job and is left to fend for herself on the streets. Which brings us to the second great question of Le Miz: Why were Fantine’s coworkers so keen on getting rid of her?
Valjean crosses paths with Fantine as she’s about to die and takes her in, promising to take care of her daughter Cosette. Javert shows up and Valjean’s past is exposed, forcing him to flee. He stops at innkeeper Thénardier’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) house to pick up Cosette.
Eight more years pass and now Valjean and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) have settled in Paris. Another run-in with Thénardier (who is now a street thief) leads to another run-in with Javert. Which brings us to two more questions: Why does Valjean insist on staying in Javert’s jurisdiction? And why do the Thénardiers keep showing up at inopportune times?
Finally, Valjean realizes it’s time to leave France for good but now he can’t because Cosette has fallen in love with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), whom — in standard musical theater tradition — she has just met.
And that’s just the first act.
The movie version of “Les Misérables” is the same sprawling epic that theater goers have enjoyed since the 1980s. And while it fills any stage, it comes across strangely smaller and disjointed on screen. There are big moments to be sure — the opening sequence and all the songs that involve large ensembles — but the story feels more rushed this time.
The actors perform admirably for the most part. Much has been made of Hathaway’s brief turn as Fantine (and it is very good) but the real breakout star of the show for me was Samantha Barks as Éponine, the Thénardiers’ doomed daughter. Her performance of “On My Own” is the strongest solo turn of the movie. In fact, the secondary performers (Seyfried, Redmayne and the other young actors) often prove to be the better singers than the leads.
Speaking of the leads, while Jackman does a decent job, Jean Valjean is a demanding vocal gig and Jackman comes up short a few times. But the real weak link is Crowe, who gives the most uninspired turn as Javert that I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen this show many times. It’s not an embarrassing performance, like Pierce Brosnan in “Mamma Mia!”, given Crowe does stay in tune. But Javert should appear driven and bombastic — Crowe mainly appears bored.
Still, one lacking performance does not a musical ruin. There’s enough to enjoy and admire about “Les Misérables” to make up for its flaws.