The natural tendency when adapting a musical for the screen is to go big and deliver the grandeur that only can be hinted at on a stage.
When that musical is set during the French Revolution, that instinct must be greater.
Director Tom Hooper defies those expectations with "Les Miserables." There are grand visual moments, but what makes this film so memorable, so affecting is its intimacy.
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, left) comes to the rescue of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in “Les Miserables.”
Hooper's camera is right on top of the performer on many of the show's signature songs. The technique puts the viewer inside their head, inside their heart in those wrenching scenes, bringing the audience closer than any front-row orchestra seat.
At no point is the technique more effective than Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" as Fantine. It may be the best four-and-a-half minutes in any movie this year. The ballad that too often is turned into a showcase for vocal technique is delivered as a rage-filled cry.
Folks will have plenty of opportunity to see it. It's featured prominently in the trailer, and portions will be played on every awards show between now and the Oscars as Hathaway collects a bookcase full of statues from anyone and everyone for Best Supporting Actress.
WHAT: "Les Miserables"
STARS: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Aaron Tveit.
STORYLINE: During the French Revolution, a paroled prisoner is tormented and trailed for decades by ruthless law officer, even after reforming his life and dedicating himself to righting past wrongs.
DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper
RATING: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
But those clips only hint at how powerful the song is within the context of the film. It is a bravura example of acting through song. Samantha Barks' rendition of "On My Own" is pretty exquisite as well.
The other wise choice that Hooper made is to have the actors sing live on camera instead of prerecording the vocals. The intimacy of the camera wouldn't have worked otherwise, and it would have amplified the artificiality of the form, like Joel Schumacher's godawful version of "Phantom of the Opera" that is like watching an overwrought Meat Loaf video.
Then again, Hooper's "Les Miz" feels a bit stage-bound on screen, which appears to be a conscious choice. There is a theatricality to the presentation and some of the locations feel like stage sets, particularly the barricade standoff between the French revolutionaries and the French army in Act II.
But a more naturalistic presentation wouldn't have worked without a drastic rewriting of the source material (the Claude-Michel Schonberg / Alain Boublil / Herbert Kretzmer musical, not the Victor Hugo novel).
The musical inherently is an artificial art form, and having characters break out into song in a gritty depiction of the French Revolution would have verged on ridiculous. As it is, scenes like Jean Valjean dragging Marius' wounded body through the sewers of Paris teeter on that edge.
This version of "Les Miserables" makes no effort to strip away that artifice. The songs aren't transformed into internal monologues the way they were in "Chicago" and the music has a less natural place in the context of the story than it does in something like "Hairspray."
For those who hate musical theater, this "Les Miz" won't change their mind. But the stage version has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries, according to the stage production's website. And those fans should be thrilled with how Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson have both preserved and transformed it for the screen. Of recent movie musicals, it may be closest to "Sweeney Todd," which is much better source material but not necessarily a better film.
If anything, "Les Miz" the movie works better than the stage version, which is a bit long-winded and over-blown despite some beautiful melodies.
Based on Hugo's 1862 novel, the story spans decades as it chronicles the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who has spent 17 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. His captor, Javert (Russell Crowe), who believes "once a thief, always a thief," is determined to pursue Valjean until he makes his belief come true.
Valjean does skip out on his parole, but he reforms his life, and a decade later he's a successful businessman. However, while trying to avoid detection from Javert, he is unable to come to the aid of one of his employees, Fantine, whose life takes a fierce downward spiral. Her dying wish is that Valjean take care of her young daughter Cosette, who he rescues from a couple of thieving innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, whose performance of "Master of the House" elicits strong memories of their work in "Sweeney Todd").
Jump forward another 10 years or so, Valjean has reestablished himself and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is an adult who has captured the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young French revolutionary. Valjean joins the cause and once again crosses paths with Javert.
Jackman and Crowe both bring a brawniness to their characters that makes the dramatic elements work better. They don't come across as song-and-dance men being passed off as tough guys. Of the two, Jackman has a much better voice, but Crowe's rendition of "Javert's Soliloquy" is compelling.
Hooper doesn't transcend the limitations of the work. The revelation that triggers Fantine's problems is flimsy, and there is no adequate explanation for Javert's dogged pursuit of Valjean. And for every "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own," there's a lyric-heavy, barely melodic "song" that would have been better replaced by a dialogue scene that would let the story unfold more like a musical and less like an opera.
Still, it's hard to imagine a better movie being made that remains this faithful to the source material.