By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Somewhere between opera and operetta, Les Misérables is a heart-on-its sleeve narrative concert.
The intense and thrilling experience that was the legendary, sung-through, ’80s stage show set in squalid revolutionary France, Les Misérables was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 political novel and, in any form, is a testament to the human spirit.
And if the movie doesn’t quite replicate the parade of privileged moments of the stage play, it still resonates with intense emotionality and extravagant romanticism.
In short, it casts a spell.
Hugh Jackman stars as prisoner-turned-politician Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who, after spending nearly two decades in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole and runs off to start a new life, becomes a factory owner and then the mayor of a small town.
Russell Crowe plays Javert, Valjean’s former prison guard, now a ruthless inspector, obsessively pursuing Valjean for decades.
And Anne Hathaway is destitute factory worker Fantine, a single mother turned prostitute whose young daughter Valjean promises to look after.
Their fates will intermingle during the 1862 uprising as French revolutionaries man the barricades.
Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne offer youthful romantic support, while Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen contribute comic relief as greedy and disreputable innkeepers.
Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2010 Oscar for best director (for The King’s Speech), demonstrates with this epic production that that was no fluke.
Instead of the usual way of filming musical numbers, which is having the performers lip-synch to prerecorded tracks, Hooper had his performers sing live during filming.
This proves to be a tremendous advantage in some cases. Jackman, anchoring the film and changing considerably as his narrative arc unveils, is terrific throughout as singer and actor.
And Hathaway’s delivery of “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most impactful in movie history: in one long, dramatic closeup, she sings her heart out while breaking ours.
But in other cases -– for example, with Crowe, who is not suited to this style of singing -– the unique approach reveals troublesome shortcomings, in singing if not in acting.
The screenplay by William Nicholson, based on the musical play by Alain Boublil, with memorable music by Claude Michel-Schoenberg and remarkably timeless lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, makes room for eighteen musical numbers –- including “One Day More,” “Bring Him Home,” and “On My Own.”
Not all soar, but all register.
Following dozens of screen adaptations of Les Misérables as far back as the silent era, this is the first musical version.
Offering virtually no spoken dialogue, it isn’t perfect. But the class warfare on display, the portrait of the downtrodden, the focus on inequality and injustice, makes the film seem a lot less like a period piece than you might think.
As the sad songs mount up, you might even find yourself thinking of it as “Occupy Wail Street.”
So we’ll barricade 3½ stars out of 4 for a stirring musical drama with many moments of magnificence. Unless you’re allergic to screen musicals, don’t Miz it.