A version of this review appeared in Sunday's Arts + Entertainment section.
When last seen, British director Tom Hooper had just overseen a historical biography about a stammering monarch, someone who felt ill-equipped to take the throne, a chap who couldn't get a sentence out without scrunching up in agony. The King's Speech, a runaway success.
There is certainly no stammering to be had, or heard, in Les Misérables, Hooper's sweeping adaptation of the Broadway musical, and destined, one suspects, for box-office glory, too. Based on Victor Hugo's hefty classic, and given an operetta treatment that can be soaring and glorious - or, when the lyrics slip into anachronistic vernacular, wincingly lame - this big-budget movie musical summons the mighty forces of CGI to create vast tableaux of castles and monasteries, shipyards and slums, France in the tumultuous first half of the 19th century.
Les Misérables also summons the mighty tonsils of Hugh Jackman, the multitasking Australian, in the role of Jean Valjean. A prisoner hounded for decades by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, another Aussie!), Valjean undergoes a spiritual transformation - and a change of identity - becoming a successful factory owner and all-round benevolent guy.
When one of his workers, Fantine (the scene-stealing Anne Hathaway), loses her job and ends up on the street, and then in a brothel, Valjean belatedly tries to make amends, promising to watch over Fantine's waif of a child, Cosette. Cue "Come to Me," "Fantine's Death," and "The Confrontation." No, Javert will not go away!
With its scenes of rebellious throngs mounting barricades to fight off army troops, and with its roving beggars and emaciated citizens dodging rats in the streets, Les Misérables can be read - and observed - as the June Rebellion version of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The music is catchier, though.
Hooper had his actors - Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier, although she could just as well be Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd) and all - wailing their numbers as they act, and recording them live on the set, which isn't usually the case with Hollywood musicals. There does seem to be an extra edge of immediacy to the performances, though Crowe - who moonlights in a rock band from time to time - has a range that's as limited as his facial expressions here. That is, he scowls.
If you love Les Mis the stage musical, my guess is you will love what Hooper and his bustling company have done. But when you hear "Master of the House" and you think of the Seinfeld episode with Elaine's gruff dad belting the tune before you think of those shifty innkeepers the Thénardiers, then you may want to steer clear of this grand endeavor.
Hugo your way, I'll go mine.
Les Misérables *** (out of four stars)
Opens Christmas Day in area theaters.
Directed by Tom Hooper. With Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Eddie Redmayne. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, sexual violence, adult themes).
Playing at: Area theaters.EndText