Filmmaker Tom Hooper manages to break a record for climbing to the apex of movie musicals with Les Misérables. Unfortunately, he does it within the first hour of proceedings and the slide back to the bottom is a laborious walk through the famous stage musical’s song book.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison and breaks parole to create a new life for himself while evading the grip of the persistent Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
The film opens with Valjean working with a group of prisoners pulling on ropes to wrangle a sailing ship into a dry dock in the middle of a fierce storm. Not only does this scene establish the hard life Valjean has lived as a slave, but the film as a whole. It’s Jackman as Valjean who keeps most of Les Misérables on course as a phenomenal presence. There is a burning rage in his vocal performances that carry all the scars of a man who has spent life known as a number not a name. ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’ is an early highlight as the film begins to establish a very high standard. Soon, the appearance of Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway, and her fall from grace signals the apex of the film. Hathaway’s rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is heartbreakingly beautiful and the view from the top is spectacular.
For all the early triumphs Hooper deserves credit for managing to capture these bold performances using technology to ensure the singing is recorded live. It gives Hathaway and Jackman an opportunity to make sure the energy and purity of each performance is maintained in the moment to share with the audience. Sadly, hurricane Hooper begins to ravage the good ship ‘Les Misérables’ with direction that works to put the audience in the most awkward position to view the film, with odd camera angles, extreme jump cutting and swift passages through time. Hooper uses all his tricks to exhaustion and it begins to chip away at each musical moment for a majority of the second half of the film. There are no signs of the Hooper evolving the direction with the performances to make them soar in different ways to heighten the emotion and it takes a bland turn.
The story begins to struggle as Valjean takes a backseat to accommodate the rise of subplots that involve love triangles and a French uprising that takes all the focus for a good chunk of time but lacks the emotion pull of Valjean’s tale. The vocal gymnastics of the supporting cast is impressive and ‘The Fugitive’ cat and mouse style chase between Valjean and Javert does enhance the tension. The reality is that most of life after ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a series musical numbers ricocheting from vocal cord to vocal cord with ease but without leaving an impression on the film.
Les Misérables is bursting with vibrant energy in the opener but dies of fatigue trying to maintain its own excellence.
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies