Our dearly departed American movie musical was laid to rest sometime between 1968 and 1970, depending on which coroner you talk to. But every few years thereafter, it’s been disinterred for another brief frolic. Those intrepid enough to attempt such resurrections now have to contend with skeptical critics and indifferent audiences. The producing of a musical automatically becomes a referendum on the genre.
Thus, the whiplash-inducing, super-clipped storytelling in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is of secondary importance beside the question of whether its Oscar-fêted director can pull off a big-screen adaptation of the internationally treasured pop opera. Charting a repentant thief’s rise through post-Napoleonic French society and his tangential connection to the anti-monarchist June Rebellion of 1832, the musical by producer Cameron Mackintosh and composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil is more an emotional approximation than a strict adaptation of Victor Hugo’s mammoth 1862 novel, and condenses a large cast of characters—principally the Christlike roughneck Jean Valjean (here played by Hugh Jackman) and the doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway)—and nearly 20 years of sprawling action into a fleet few hours of quick-change theater.
This movie is by definition hobbled, with no chance of equaling Raymond Bernard’s exquisite and resonant 1934 version of the novel, which unfolded over five luxurious hours. The stylistic elegance and visual coherence of that early French cinema adaptation have been traded in for an all-out sensory assault. As The King’s Speech’s Merchant-Ivory-meets-Jean-Pierre-Jeunet style suggests, Hooper is more capable with actors than with space and there’s no dancing, thank God. Ultimately the film’s choppy, camera-goes-anywhere approach works well in translating a play that was never all that interested in the movement of bodies anyway—only their martyrdom.
Engagingly cartoonish despite its pretenses to realism (it feels visually in line with Disney’s Nineties animated features, perhaps the closest we’ve had to a sustained revival of the American musical), Les Misérables believes in its own populist power so earnestly that it’s hard to resist. Hooper’s unifying aesthetic tends toward a forced grittiness, which sometimes renders it humorless and, during its scenes of rape and prostitution, makes a kind of fetish of abjection. But the director’s solemnity also gives rise to the film’s most stirring moments, such as Anne Hathaway’s single-take rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” and Hugh Jackman’s wrenching “What Have I Done?” soliloquy, both performed to the camera in discomfiting close-up, in soulful communion with the viewer. Hooper does well by both performers, foisting them upon us with such conviction that he almost elides their fundamental musical incompatibility with their roles (Valjean is written as a tenor, Jackman is a baritone; Hathaway’s trilling soprano misses Fantine’s slightly darker mezzo-soprano edge). And in a film whose success is at least 90 percent dependent on casting, many of the remaining major roles are wisely filled by stage performers, with a tremulous Samantha Barks and a full-throated Aaron Tveit as standouts. That said, blunders abound: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s singing voices are too wispy and their mannerisms too Tim Burton–outlandish for the boisterous Thénardiers, and an ill-at-ease Russell Crowe fares poorly in the role of Inspector Javert—due to his nasal singing as well as the actor’s well-practiced po-faced routine, which does no favors to a character who’s already such a pill.
The limitations of these vocally challenged cast members are amplified by Hooper’s much-ballyhooed decision to record his actors singing live during filming rather than, as is traditional, in an ADR booth—putting the film in the unlikely company of Harry Beaumont and Ernst Lubitsch’s Hollywood musicals of the late Twenties and early Thirties (as well as Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Moses and Aaron and From Today Until Tomorrow). This ostensibly good choice transforms even the most casual number into a thrilling high-wire act, momentarily fortifying what is otherwise the epitome of middlebrow fluff. That’s the most we can ask of our cinéma de qualité director of the moment.