I wouldn't be surprised if "Les Miserables" became the most popular movie musical since "Mamma Mia!" On stage, both diversions were, and are, easy to enjoy in their diametrically opposed ways. "Mamma Mia!" revels in Greece, glitter and ABBA; "Les Miz" wallows in France, sewers, good, evil and revolutionaries with fabulous hair.
Realizing many eager filmgoers will cry big, leaky wooden buckets of tears over director Tom Hooper's film version, let me state that I have reviewed the stage version of the musical many times, from London to New York to various touring companies, and I like the show. I do. It's the only '80s blockbuster of its ilk ("Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" being the others) that I really do like. It's big but not entirely reliant on spectacle. Its compression of the Victor Hugo novel, musicalized by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzner, is a pretty piece of theatrical craft.
You get the right singers for the roles, and a couple of tolerable comic-relief types for the sleazy innkeepers who lead the chorus in that infernal tune "Master of the House," and you're more than halfway to the barricades.
Now: the movie.
I didn't like it.
There's no genre I cherish more than film musicals. Hugh Jackman (who plays, sings , mutters and roars his way through the role of saintly Jean Valjean) has the stuff, the training, the voice and ability to express 101 percent of what's needed in a fervent close-up. Anne Hathaway, a fairly sure bet for a supporting actress Oscar as Fantine, grabs ahold of her big song "I Dreamed a Dream" like someone with an Oscar to win. Russell Crowe's voice may be wrong for Inspector Javert — he spends most of the score straining in his upper register, while sounding like an amalgam of all four Beatles — but already he's taking the rap for single-handedly dragging "Les Miz" down, which is silly. The movie drags itself down.
Hooper directed two films I very much admire, "The King's Speech" and "The Damned United," and now he has made his largest and worst. He films a great deal of it in eyebrow-to-lower-lip close-up. Or else he cuts like a maniac raised on too many Ken Russell biopics, shaping each individual set piece as a blur of noise and chaos. There's no breathing room in his approach, visually or otherwise.
The musical is "sung-through," as the theater people say, crammed with nattering recitative, i.e., dialogue that is sung, either in earnest or on the fly. The camera bobs and weaves like a drunk, frantically. So you have hammering close-ups, combined with woozy insecurity each time more than two people are in the frame. Twenty minutes into the retelling of fugitive Valjean, his monomaniacal pursuer Javert, the torch singers Fantine and Eponine and the rest, I wanted somebody to just nail the damn camera to the ground.
The years pass; Valjean becomes a respectable and wealthy man with a dangerous secret and an adopted daughter, Cosette, who grows up to be Amanda Seyfried, while Javert keeps almost nabbing the ex-con continually eluding his grasp and vexing him, to his very soul, with his goodness. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter might've worked as the innkeepers under a different director, and with funnier bits, but they come off like third-raters here. Eddie Redmayne (Marius) does well by "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," but too little in this frenzied mess of a film registers because Hooper is trying to make everything register at the same nutty pitch. With the camera an inch away from everybody's noses, you worry about catching a cold or something.
Many will adore it. But how you film a musical number (and this material is essentially a three-hour musical number) matters when you're doing a musical on film, to state the obvious. "Les Miz" appears destined for many Oscar nominations. Until that nomination announcement day I'll just dream a dream of musicals gone by, directed by people who could create a rhythm and establish a style that complemented the story, the performers and everything in between.