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Movie Review

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables (2012)
Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in "Les Miserables"

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Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. 2 hours, 37 minutes.
Publication date: Dec. 28, 2012
Review by Peter Canavese
Released: (2012)

One has to admire the ambition of "Les Miserables," the through-sung play that's now a big-screen musical. A condensation of Victor Hugo's 1862 epic novel, the musical by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel achieved enormous popular appeal with its soaring melodies and grasping melodrama.

But it's equally true that "Les Miserables" has never been known for its subtlety, with its storytelling in all-caps and its music thunderously repetitive. None of this changes, exactly, in the film adaptation helmed by Tom Hooper, Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech." And like so many movie musicals, this one's a mixed bag of suitable and not-so-suitable choices. On balance, though, it's about as compelling a screen version of "Les Mis" as we have any right to expect.

Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a parole violator, in 19th-century France, who lifts himself out of poverty and decrepitude but lives in fear of discovery by his former jailer, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). From his new position of power as a factory owner, Valjean becomes entangled in the fortunes of one of his workers, despairing single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and he begins to feel responsible for the woman and her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

The story sprawls its way into the Paris Uprising of 1832 -- a student-fueled rebellion against the French monarchy -- and a sort of love triangle among Cosette (now Amanda Seyfried), student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and his beggarly confidant Eponine (Samantha Barks, reprising her stage role). Throw in street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) and comic relief in the devious Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, the latter unfortunately channeling Adam Sandler), and you have yourself a show.

Jackman is perhaps the only sensible choice to headline the picture, and though he's able enough, his performance typically feels calculated. The same could be said for Hathaway, who's given an Oscar-savvy showcase in her single-take performance of the uber-emotive aria "I Dreamed a Dream." Hooper's best choice is also his riskiest gambit: By recording all the vocals live (rather than the standard practice of having the actors lip-sync), he gets more vital acting, with intentionally raggedy vocals lending a palpable verisimilitude.

But for my money, best acting honors go to Crowe, Redmayne and Barks, who seem most "in the moment." Crowe suffers from some wobbly diction, but his performance is always emotionally resonant, while Barks knocks "On My Own" out of the park (I'll admit it: I got chills). Redmayne ("My Week with Marilyn") busts out with a surprisingly rich tenor voice -- who knew? -- that never once feels affected.

Hooper maximizes his budget to make "Les Miserables" look as big as can be, and occasionally he manages an ingenious small touch amidst the bombast (like seamstresses tugging needles on the beat). But Hooper also shoots himself in the foot by so insistently shooting in wide-angle close-ups. The play is "in your face" enough as it is: With the camera swooping in so often, I was sure it was going to smack an actor in the forehead. Pop a Dramamine and you'll be fine.