Les Misérables

 

Directed by Tom Hooper. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen 12A cert, general release, 158 min

As bombastic musicals go, Les Miz delivers a fair share of drama, writes DONALD CLARKE

Many, many good films – a few masterpieces, even – have been adapted from bad books. Once in a while, after a great deal of rewriting, a film-maker will fashion a fine movie from an unsatisfactory play. It is, however, just about impossible to create a decent movie from a hopeless musical. To state the maxim in more subjective language, if you hated the show, you’ll probably hate the movie.

Fortunately, Les Misérables is probably the best of the flashy, sung-through event musicals that conquered the world during the 1980s. It had its moments of careering bathos. Some of the warbled dialogue grated. (“I am agog. I am aghast. Has Marius found love at last?”) But there were enough big tunes to carry indulgent audiences through the unforgiving running time.

Tom Hooper, director of the efficient The King’s Speech, has knocked together a largely successful adaptation that highlights the musical’s virtues even as it fails to conceal its deficiencies. Comprising a sometimes jarring melange of computer-generated spectacle and tightly framed intimacy, Les Misérables will either batter you into submission or torment you towards fury.

Noting the hugeness of Victor Hugo’s 1862 source novel, any synopsis should prove impossible. But writer Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil have gutted the story with admirable efficiency. The action follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a former convict, as he flees Javert (Russell Crowe), a fanatical police officer, through a version of 19th-century France peopled with various grotesques, victims and tarnished saints.

Among that last set, Valjean encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman thrown into prostitution, and arranges for the care of her young daughter Cosette. Events come to a head during the June Uprising of 1832.

Whatever the merits of The King’s Speech, nobody could mistake it for the work of an experimental film-maker. Sure enough, Les Misérables features few directorial innovations or visual flourishes. Pixel-heavy recreations of vast shipyards and idealised Parisian cityscapes alternate with musical numbers that – in the opening act, particularly – rarely escape the soundstage.

Hooper’s much-touted Big Idea was to have the actors to sing live on set. Given how few of the performers have a musical theatre background (the charismatic if somewhat lightweight Jackman being a notable exception), this constitutes something of a gamble. It has, for the most part, paid off.

Amanda Seyfried can do nothing with the older Cosette, but that was always the weakest major role. Eddie Redmayne is superb as the revolutionary student who falls for that weedy orphan. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen make something genuinely creepy of the crooked innkeepers Madame and Monsieur Thénardier.

Then we have Hathaway. The young star’s take on I Dreamed a Dream has already become something of a sensation (and looks to have assured her an Oscar). On a superficial level, the decision to have her lean more towards acting than singing – all this in one continuous take – serves to put needed blue water between Hathaway and a certain Susan Boyle. Conjuring up unexpected memories of Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the dying turn is showy, sentimental, shameless and utterly irresistible.

Unfortunately, much that follows seems then seems anticlimactic. The problems really set in when the film moves past the place where the interval used to be. On stage, the trundling out of the barricade and the unfurling of the revolutionary flags worked as a spectacular coup de théâtre. In the cinema, we have gone beyond being impressed by piles of wood and fluttering fabric. Crowe’s deficiencies as a singer become harder to ignore. The central romance seems more anaemic than ever. The political undercurrents flow too deeply to register.

Still, Les Misérables is much better than we might have feared. Those who get on with tunes will barely notice the hours flying past. Of course, if you hate the show, you’ll hate the film. Have we made that clear?