“Les Miserables” – the book, the show, the movie – is about the redemptive power of forgiveness, love, and commitment. If you think all that stuff is just bunk, then see something else this holiday season. But if you are ready for an operatic epic with an emotional punch, then the movie “Miz” should be on your must-see list.
Well-acted and well-sung, with camera work ranging from wide-screen spectacle to close-up moments of poignancy, “Les Miz” is a tour de force in the fine art of bringing theatrical spectaculars to the screen. Musicals are hard to film, modern operas almost impossible, but director Tom Hooper pulls it off with style.
The cast is anchored by Hugh Jackman, every inch the leading man as Jean Valjean; Russell Crowe as the relentless Inspector Javert; and Anne Hathaway as the victimized factory worker Fantine, whose slide into desperate poverty provides the story’s emotional core.
Amanda Seyfried, who played the bride in “Mama Mia,” is Cosette, Fantine’s daughter who is rescued and raised by Valjean, and Eddie Redmayne is Marius, the dreamy intellectual who falls for Cosette at first sight. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide comic relief as the venal innkeeper Thenardier and his wife.
In movie musicals, the singing is usually recorded in a studio and dubbed into the film. But “Les Miz” is an opera – almost everything is sung. Acting and singing have to mesh perfectly. So the actors sing their parts on camera, which is an enormous challenge for people not accustomed to live performance. Jackman and Crowe have more than serviceable voices, while Anne Hathaway sings with raw emotion. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is not merely a cry of pain but a scream of agony of betrayal and abandonment.
The strongest single vocal performance might be that of Samantha Barks as Eponine, the Thenardiers’ daughter whose love for Marius in unrequited. When she finally has to accept that Marius will never be more than a friend, her “On My Own” demonstrates vocal range and control as well as heartfelt loss.
Anyone who has seen and liked the show will probably love the movie, since Cameron Mackintosh clearly wanted to bring his worldwide theatrical phenomenon to the screen more or less intact. At two hours 37 minutes, obviously nothing significant was left out. But the film moves along and never really drags, although some judicious editing might have been in order.
The only odd part is the ending, in which Valjean dies and is welcomed into what is obviously supposed to be heaven by the Bishop of Digne, whose forgiveness is what launched Valjean on his long path to righteousness. Then the camera shifts to an enormous barricade in which Valjean and Fantine and all the young rebels are alive, waving flags, and reprising “Do You Hear the People Sing?” So either resurrection is another core value of “Les Mz,” or it’s just the equivalent of a curtain call – take your pick.