Dir. Tom Hooper
(2012, PG-13, 157 minutes)

I had never seen any version of Les Miserables on stage or screen, though the stage musical, which opened on Broadway in 1987 and ran for 16 years, is so famous I have inevitably heard selections from its song score. Tom Hooper‘s film version is my first complete experience of the musical, so I come not only to evaluate the director’s approach, but to consider for the first time the material itself.

The songs are by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boubil, and Jean-Marc Natel, translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer, and it’s mostly outstanding, full of soaring emotional crescendos, grand without being grandiose, demanding powerful voices and mostly getting them from the often surprising ensemble cast.

It’s understandable then that Hooper would lean heavily on those actors for the film’s dramatic effect. It is, for instance, a good creative choice to simply hold the camera on a closeup of Anne Hathaway while she sings “I Dreamed a Dream” with wrenching conviction, and later Eddie Redmayne during his equally stirring solo “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean

Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean

But the strategy works better with some actors than others. Hugh Jackman has the leading role as escaped convict Jean Valjean, who served 20 years of prison and servitude for stealing a loaf of bread, and then starts a new life under an assumed identity. Jackman is a proven singer – I saw his Tony-winning performance in The Boy from Oz, as well as some of his live TV work, including as Oscar host in 2008 – but when tackling the grander numbers his vibrato tends to overwhelm the melody, and Hooper brings little to such intense emotional pieces as “Bring Him Home,” in which Valjean comes to terms with his daughter’s potential suitor; the scene just sits there on the screen. The actor is better during restrained moments, which highlight the tenderness of his voice and the subtler emotional shadings he brings to Valjean.

Probably miscast is Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, Valjean’s lifelong nemesis. Crowe is a solid singer, but his performance is not expressive enough to be convincing as such a zealot as Javert. The actor mostly scowls through the part, lacking the emotional depth that would make his character arc ring true. By the end of his story, I simply wasn’t buying it.

The musical ensemble soars on rousing, rallying songs like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” but I do not know what share of the credit belongs to the filmmaker as opposed to the original composers.

Throughout, I had the feeling of watching a great musical within a respectable, not spectacular film. Hooper doesn’t fail the material, per se, but I’m not sure he rises to it either. I’ve long thought of him as a competent filmmaker, whose occasionally askew camera angles and compositions never substitute for a forceful style. I think his best films are Longford and The Damned United, smaller-scale character studies very different from the more lavish spectacles he’s better known for (John Adams, The King’s Speech).

I wonder if a bolder director with a stronger vision might have brought out more from this material, which is full of unrest, despair, and anguished cries for revolution. The passion in it is clear. It may have benefitted from less polite a filmmaker.