To say that Les Misérables is a musical would be the understatement of the century. The dialogue in the film is sung nearly 100 percent of the time, setting it apart from pretty much every other musical-turned-movie. If three hours of straight singing doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then Les Mis probably isn't for you, but if you appreciate complex characters, an emotionally charged story, and yes, beautiful music, then you're in for a treat.
The story of Les Misérables is one of redemption, with Hugh Jackman carrying most of the burden as Jean Valjean, an ex-convict determined to get a fresh start and live as an honest man in 19th century France. Standing in his way is Javert (Russell Crowe), an inspector determined to put Valjean back in prison. The two square off again and again throughout the years, and along the way, Valjean rescues a poor girl named Cosette from the clutches of two dishonest innkeepers (played to comedic perfection by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and eventually joins a Parisian uprising. To see where the film works and where it doesn't, just
Jackman is perfectly comfortable putting his excellent singing voice to work here and certainly runs circles around his onscreen nemesis, Crowe. Crowe seems a bit out of his league: his singing voice is OK, but he fails to pack any punch into his solos, eventually making Javert as a wooden, one-dimensional character instead of a conflicted, complex villain. As dependable as Jackman is, the real revelation of Les Misérables is Anne Hathaway. Her character, Fantine, is perhaps the most tragic, as we watch her turn from innocent factory girl to frail prostitute in a matter of minutes. Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is gut-wrenching and utterly heartbreaking. Though Hathaway's screen time is limited, she leaves her mark early, and her haunting performance is the one that stays with you.
Director Tom Hooper (best known for his Oscar-winning The King's Speech) filmed Les Misérables with his cast (which also includes Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried) singing live, as opposed to lip-synching to previously recorded tracks. As a result, the actors are able to use their voices to express their characters' emotional anguish (or joy, as the rare case may be). The results are a bit of a mixed bag: for the raw, more personal songs, this method succeeds in building a deeper connection between the character and the audience. However, splashier ensemble numbers that are showstoppers in the stage version don't translate as well to the big screen with so many different voices featured at the same time.
As a longtime fan of the musical, I found that it's impossible not to make comparisons between the show and the movie, and there are certainly elements that are better left to the stage. However, the sheer ambition behind Les Mis is a feat in itself, and the fine cast does everything they can to stay faithful to the original material but also take it in a slightly different direction. Is it better as a film than as a show? Probably not. But for an adaptation, there's not much room for improvement either.