Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, left, and Anne Hathaway as Fantine in a scene from "Les Miserables."
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Victor Hugo’s beloved 1862 French novel Les Misérables, a sweeping epic of love, redemption, and rebellion, is a favorite of stage and film — with a dozen movie adaptations already.
And now comes the grandest version yet, featuring a big budget, big stars, and a recent Oscar-winning director. This is a Hollywood musical through and through.
It’s also Anne Hathaway’s film.
As the tragic and desperate Fantine, Hathaway steals Les Misérables from the likes of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe with a moving performance of force and fragility; her rousing delivery of the song “I Dreamed a Dream” causes one to sit up straight and marvel at such a beautiful transformation onscreen — one that will surely reward her with an Oscar. If 2008’s Rachel Getting Married served as our introduction to the dramatic potential of Hathaway, then Les Misérables is the fulfillment of that promise.
Directed by Tom Hooper. Screenplay by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. A Working Title/Universal Studios release opening Christmas Day at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence, and thematic elements. Running time: 157 minutes.
Critic’s Rating: 2.5 stars
Hugh Jackman ...Jean Valjean
Russell Crowe ...Javert
Anne Hathaway ...Fantine
Amanda Seyfried ...Cosette
Sacha Baron Cohen ...Thénardier
Helena Bonham Carter ...Madame Thénardier
Fantine and her fate is a minor part in Hugo’s multi-plotted story, yet Hathaway’s absence haunts this film, and it never fully recovers without her.
Set in France during multiple years between 1815 and 1832, Les Misérables, one of several movies opening Christmas Day, is the compelling story of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a petty criminal given a second chance through divine grace, who spends the rest of his life repaying the kindness shown to him. Jackman is a gifted song and dance man as comfortable onstage as he is onscreen — comparisons to Gene Kelly are certainly justified — and his performance of Valjean is effortless and moving. Crowe (who avails himself well enough as a singer — he did front a rock band for several years, after all) plays dogged police inspector Javert, who has a past with Jean Valjean and continually chases him, even as Jean Valjean has rehabilitated himself into a successful businessman and pillar of the community. But he’s also a fugitive from the law, which is all that matters to Javert. The two play a cat-and-mouse game through the years, with Jean Valjean staying just one step ahead of his nemesis.
Their story will intertwine with Fantine, a young woman oppressed by what appears to be a gloomy fate. Fired from her factory job, her husband having deserted her, and a young daughter in the temporary care of two petty criminals — Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen ) and Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter) — Fantine resorts to almost anything to earn the money necessary to provide for the two of them. Her “dream” of a better life is more than a song, it’s the theme of Les Misérables and its characters.
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean holding Isabelle Allen as Young Cosette in a scene from "Les Miserables."
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It’s not just the overcast skies, dark costumes, and gray city streets that cast a melancholy pall on the film: there’s not much hope for anyone in this story, save orphan Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who was adopted by Jean Valjean as a little girl and as an adult finds love in one of the leaders of the Paris Uprising, Marius. It’s Javert who is helping the government’s heavily armed army to quash the small band of rebels, putting Jean Valjean in another crisis: fleeing again from Javert, or saving Cosette’s one true love from execution.
Tom Hooper, whose historical biography The King’s Speech swept the Oscars two years ago, was an inspired choice to helm this project, if for no other reason than his risky decision to have actors sing live to the camera — onset and not recording their vocals at a later time in a studio. The payoff is more than a marketing gimmick, but a raw immediacy to the music and a more natural feel to the performances. Hooper, who has never staged a musical, is understandably focused on the cinematic possibilities of Les Misérables rather than a stage recreation. The gorgeous art direction and sweeping cinematography by Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech, John Adams miniseries) elevate the filmmaker’s vision of Les Misérables as something greater than a rehash of the musical.
Yet his adaptation, while epic in scope and scale, never soars quite so high as its noble ambitions.
The film is entirely too long for its own good, and all save the biggest Les Misérables fans are likely to grow restless at some point in this 157-minute spectacle. The beauty of a film can only carry audience attention so far — especially when its best part isn’t around for much of it.
Contact Kirk Baird at: email@example.com or 419-724-6734.