Updated Friday, December 21, 2012 at 05:54 PM
Resistance is futile to Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables.” It is going to sing at you until you succumb — and you just might.
“Les Mis,” as millions already know, is a sung-through musical tale (based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel) of love and death and revolution in 19th-century France, in which nearly every song is a catchy ballad and nearly every character we get attached to dies — generally immediately after singing an especially pretty and catchy ballad. The long-awaited screen version of the hit stage musical (now in its 28th year on London’s West End) makes things difficult for itself, with one key miscasting and a clunky opening sequence seemingly designed to clear the cinema of anyone not already a fan. But sit back and wait for this film — and these actors — to find their rhythms. This isn’t a great movie musical, but it’s a good one, with a couple of truly transcendent performances.
One of those comes from Hugh Jackman, who overcomes a rocky start (why does his voice sound so oddly tinny at the beginning?) to deliver a moving depiction of Jean Valjean, the saintly former convict now trying desperately to overcome his past. Jackman, a stage-musicals veteran, knows how to make singing seem as natural as speech, and his emotional connections with factory-girl-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and her daughter Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen, then by a sweet but thin-voiced Amanda Seyfried) give the movie its heart. Russell Crowe, as Valjean’s nemesis Inspector Javert, is less successful: Crowe has a small, tight singing voice and — worse — he seems to stop acting when he sings, making the two an uneven match.
Hathaway, though in the movie briefly, is utterly riveting — in a performance that wouldn’t be possible onstage. Singing much of “I Dreamed a Dream” in a voice so tiny you fear it will fade away, like breath on a cold night, she makes Fantine’s pain immediate and real, and the way she curls her mouth into scorn on the song’s last line (“Now life has killed the dream I dreamed”) is devastating.
Hooper’s direction isn’t particularly imaginative; most of the songs are shot in tight close-up, which gets repetitive (as do all those ballads — though Samantha Barks as Éponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius are particularly good at delivering them). But “Les Misérables,” with its ever-soaring music and ever-dreaming characters, has a grandeur to it, and the final interaction between Jackman and Hathaway would take a heart of stone to resist. Yes, I cried, and yes, I’m still humming; you might, too.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Les Misérables,” with Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit. Directed by Tom Hooper, from a screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, based on Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boublil and Schönberg’s stage musical. 160 minutes. Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. Opens in several theaters on Dec. 25.