By Robert Horton Herald Movie Criic
Blanket statement to all who love the long-running stage musical “Les Miserables”: Go to the movie, enjoy seeing it fixed in a permanent form, and if you’re transported in a way that is meaningful to you, fantastic.
As for me, well … different story. I like musicals, but somehow never got in front of a production of the much-beloved “Les Miz,” so I’m coming as a newbie. Spawned in 1980, the show is probably playing somewhere in the world every hour of the day.
Of course, “Les Miserables” began before that, as a novel concocted by Victor Hugo in the 19th century. Filmed many times, its plot is so strong it’s close to being surefire.
You’ve probably run across the story one way or another: Jean Valjean, a poor man sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, is hounded after release by a supernaturally determined police inspector, Javert.
The tale goes on for decades, includes Valjean’s caretaking of the orphan girl Cosette, and culminates in 1832 Paris for the anti-monarchist uprising. In the musical, everybody sings the whole thing — literally, as there’s very little spoken dialogue in the score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil (English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer).
Director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech,” has conceived this spectacle as a series of intimate exchanges, rushing his digital camera into close-up to catch every grimace and sobbed rhyme. You can tell the actors have been coached not to worry about singing every line but to emote whenever possible.
Chief culprit there is Hugh Jackman, an accomplished hand at stage musicals, who plays Jean Valjean. Jackman has an emotional breakdown in almost every song, to the point that it becomes monotonous — although, yes, Valjean has been through quite a bit.
Russell Crowe plays Javert, and he’s the one actor here who knows how to dial things down for maximum effect. His singing voice strains at the demands of the role, but he does have presence.
As the adult Cosette, Amanda Seyfried (who also warbled in “Mamma Mia!”) displays a sweet soprano that makes her a throwback to the days of Jeanette MacDonald. Her scenes with young lover Marius (Eddie Redmayne) give the movie its dewy, tragical romance.
Anne Hathaway has limited screen time as Fantine, Cosette’s mother, but sings effectively and pulls off her big song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” in a single harrowing shot. Kudos to her for nailing that, although Hooper can’t help billboarding the song as a Big Moment, just in case we miss it.
The boisterous comic appearances by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are welcome. They give a hint of what the movie would’ve been had Tim Burton directed it.
Hooper’s approach provides a textbook case for bad directing. Plot turns that have been socko in previous versions of “Les Miserables” (Javert’s sudden arrival in the reformed Valjean’s small town, for instance) are fumbled.
It’s one thing for a film to be a triumph of design over substance, but at least in the past that meant feasting your eyes on a movie’s lushness. Here, the use of green screen and digital effects takes a toll; when we see Paris by moonlight and it looks like a video game, it detracts from the drama.
Somewhere in all this, the musical lumbers along, doing its thing. That will be enough for its fans, but if this movie wins the Oscar for best picture, it may be a sign that the Mayan calendar was right after all.
“Les Miserables” (2 stars)
The much-beloved, long-running stage musical of Victor Hugo’s tale comes to the screen, in a version heavy with close-ups, green screen digital effects, and large emoting. Tom Hooper’s direction bungles some surefire moments, and his insistence on giant close-ups during songs seems to wear out Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe (but Anne Hathaway certainly nails her brief showstopping turn). Not a good movie, although that will hardly matter to diehard fans.
Rated: PG-13 rating is for subject matter.
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.