First off, let me issue a disclaimer: I’m not a fan of musicals and haven’t seen the stage version, so I watched Les Misérables from the perspective of a movie fan who is addicted to popcorn. If you’re reading this review, you probably know the story already, so I want to focus on the individual performances and the level of entertainment this movie provides. As the title suggests, this is the opposite of a feel-good movie, so if you’re a person who gets depressed around the holidays, you might just want to see it on DVD later.
Director Tom Hooper’s decision to let the actors sing live on-set, as opposed to the usual practice of recording the songs in the studio prior to filming, worked well. The sense of intimacy is intense at times, almost as if we’re eavesdroppers or even voyeurs. If you were expecting something understated and elegant, such as Hooper’s previous film, The King’s Speech, you’ll be disappointed. This film is unabashedly over-the-top, and that really isn’t a bad thing.
Hugh Jackman, as the main character, Jean Valjean, is tasked with carrying the entire production, and he rises to the challenge. He’s obviously a Broadway veteran, able to fill a screen just as deftly as a stage. This is mostly Jackman’s movie, with notable upstarts Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks stealing the show now and again. If I have any complaint at all, it is a minor one: Jackman does go heavy on the vibrato throughout the entire film, but it subtracts little from his phenomenal performance. At his best, in a song asking God to save another character’s life, his voice is almost operatic in its power.
Anne Hathaway is every bit as good as you’ve heard, and she fully inhabits the role of Fantine. Her long hair is cut on-screen for this role, and when she sings the classic “I Dreamed a Dream,” you absolutely believe she is living this deplorable, destitute life. Hathaway’s on the screen for a limited time, but if she doesn’t win an Oscar for this role, it would really be a travesty.
Russell Crowe seems to be trying so hard to play at the level of Jackman and Hathaway that he gets carried away with giving his all. Some have described his performance as Javert as talk-singing, but it is really yelling-while-walking. When he occasionally tones down the bluster and the volume, it is much more consistent with the rest of the cast and far more enjoyable.
Samantha Barks, as Éponine, played the same part in the 2010-2011 West End stage production and all but steals the show with her rendering of “On My Own.” The mystery to me is how she managed to hit those high notes in a brutally tight corset, but hit them she did, to spectacular effect.
Eddie Redmayne is a revelation in his role as love-struck Marius. The actor had never done a musical before, but his version of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is breathtaking.
Amanda Seyfried is an ethereal beauty with a delicate soprano voice that veers into being shrill at times, but she holds her own as the virtuous Cosette.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring comic relief to any role, even to somewhat malevolent characters, such as the thieving innkeeper and his wife.
Overall, Les Misérables is moving and memorable, with a few standout performances from high-caliber actors, some of whom will certainly be Oscar contenders. On a final note, be warned again: It’s not a feel-good movie. Try not to see it if you’re feeling particularly blue, but if you do, don’t forget to bring the tissues.