'Les Miserables': Destroying Cynicism with Song

The highly anticipated version of the blockbuster musical is imperfect and silly, sure, but it is also something of a must-see in its show-stopping earnestness.

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There are moments in Les Misérables, the movie musical adaptation from The King's Speech director Tom Hooper, that are so rumbling and rousing and righteous that certain people might be immediately transported back into the theater seat where they, smaller of body but probably bigger of heart, first fell in love with the sweep and swoon of musical theater. That's the big, definitive declaration I'm going to make about this turgid movie, a gut-pouring melodrama that never flinches in the face of its own largeness. I'm not sure how people who are not musical obsessives will react to the film — it takes the form very seriously — but for those with any decent amount of showtune-itis in their blood, Les Misérables is, I'm surprised to find myself saying, something of a must-see.

For those of you who weren't forced to read Victor Hugo's novel in high school or have never had a wacky aunt drag them to the stage show: Les Misérables tells the story of an ex-convict named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who flees parole to start a new life, only to have the stubborn Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) doggedly pursue him over the years. Valjean eventually becomes the father-figure ward of a young girl named Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, when she's older) whose mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) — spoiler alert for a 150-year-old novel? — dies early on in the story. Valjean and Cosette get swept up in the 1832 June Rebellion, Cosette particularly with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Hearts bend and break, people sing and die, and the world, or at least Paris, points toward a brave new tomorrow. It's a years-spanning, dramatic cliché-wielding bludgeon of a yarn, rife with too-convenient connections (roughly twenty people live in all of Paris, it seems) and heavily rendered sentiment, and the great thing about this movie is that it knows all of that about itself. Hooper and his cast throw any concern about the story's innate cornballness right into the Seine, and proceed with a dedication of purpose that is almost as stirring as the show itself. Everyone sings with eye-bulging passion, sweat and tears dripping down their dirty faces, which Hooper often shoots in tight, insistent closeup. The much-discussed choice to record the actors singing live, instead of laying track over in post, pays off handsomely; the musical numbers are urgent and natural, not the warmed-over, hokey, slick stuff of Nine or Rock of Ages. Those may be unfair comparisons, but frankly it's hard to find a good corollary for this movie. It's an extremely earnest opera starring a bunch of movie stars. What else is there like it? (Don't say Phantom of the Opera. That wouldn't be fair.)

To answer maybe the movie's biggest question, yes, Anne Hathaway gives quite the performance as the poor, doomed, trembling Fantine. There's a lot going on in her big "I Dreamed a Dream" number, Hathaway croaking and screeching it out with fluid pouring out of every hole in her face, but like the actress's jumble of big features, it somehow all comes together. Hooper gives Hathaway the appropriate context for all her theater-kid stuff, and she reigns supreme for much of the film as the story's most emotionally engaging presence. Which isn't to diminish what our hero Hugh Jackman is doing. Walking into the role like he was born for it (probably because he was), Jackman is more tuned-in and expressive than he's maybe ever been in the movies. Here is the ideal fit for both his old-school haminess and his modern movie-star gruffness. A wounded wolverine, a feral Peter Allen, whatever you want to call it, it plays like a dream. If they gave out Oscars for sheer effort, Jackman would win in a landslide. When I was discussing the movie with a friend afterward, we both wondered if this Les Miz would have happened at all had Jackman not been available. He's entirely integral to its success, appearing to love every minute of finally being able to marry his two professions in grandstanding fashion. Russell Crowe, then, has a lot to live up to, and let's just say that he tries his darnedest. Like everyone else, Crowe indicates nothing but commitment to the task at hand. He's not a natural singer, at times almost laughably so, but like the kid in the school play who sells the thing by sheer force of moxie, Crowe handily wins us over. That Javert is the show's most snooze-worthy character isn't his fault, after all.

As for the kids, Seyfried trills and warbles as sweetly and tinnily as she did in Mamma Mia!, a perfectly pious and bland Cosette. West End vet Samantha Barks, playing poor lovesick innkeepers' daughter Eponine, gets her important job done; she's a ringer brought in to nail "On My Own" before unceremoniously fading away, and she seems determinedly aware of her kamikaze duty. As the Y chromosome corner of the kids' love triangle, the angel-faced Eddie Redmayne uses his Cambridge choir tenor to great effect, bringing the house down, everyone in a teary heap in the basement, during the show's most affectingly written song, the mournful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." He and Seyfried don't have much innate chemistry, but they sing-blast their way past that problem, and anyway they only get one real scene of courtship, so it's not a glaringly recurring issue. Plenty of strong support is offered by a cast of dozens, including Broadway heartthrob Aaron Tveit as rebellion leader Enjolras and little Daniel Huttlestone as precocious street urchin Gavroche.  Only Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, playing the thieving Thénardiers, don't quite click with the picture. They seem to have walked in from another movie, one costumed by Tim Burton, and their comic relief shtick is an awkward sore thumb in an otherwise serious production. Still, they at least appear to be having a good time. Hooper has put together a strong company, and all seem completely sworn to the cause.

This is not a perfect film, of course. There are stretches that drag, particularly the middle section that leads up to the rebellion and a Return of the King-esque overly drawn-out ending. And, yes, there are parts where all the sturm und drang tips over into silliness. But for it earnestness, its vibrant and genuinely moving esprit de corps, and its simple and sweet messages about love and faith, Les Misérables is a heart-pounding success. Some may balk at all the sing-speak, others at the movie's complete ignorance of irony, but I suspect that if you've ever felt the goosebump chill of a big showstopping number burrowing its way into your soul, you'll find something to cheer for here. The film's opening day, on December 25, feels just right — after all, what could be more Christmasy than destroying cynicism with song?

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