A musical melodrama that’s mostly just miserable

Following on from The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper replaces regal England with 19th-century France in an adaptation of the longest running musical of all time, Les Misérables. After snapping up a few statues at the Academy Awards, however, the two-and-a-half hours of singing left me emotionally exhausted.

While it’s virtually impossible to condense Victor Hugo’s 1,900 page novel into a few hours, Hooper embraces the source material’s ability to move at a more leisurely pace than the hurried stage show. The story spans three decades and depicts a French peasant named Jean Valjean (Jackman), who is serving a 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. After breaking his parole, he spends the next 27 years hunted by resilient prison guard Javert (Crowe), who seeks redemption by being charitable to the down-and-out Parisians he meets along the way, including a factory girl-turned-prostitute, Fantine (Hathaway), and her daughter Cosette (Seyfried).

With extensive training in musical theatre and a very burly set of shoulders, Valjean is very much the character Jackman was born to play. He does fantastically here: omnipresent and carrying what is otherwise a tough mainstream sale.

The biggest hype surrounding Les Misérables is Hathaway’s performance, and rightfully so. While her screen time amounts to a miniscule 15 minutes, Hathaway is sensational, and her rousing rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a genuine tearjerking moment. Unfortunately, it comes within the first fifth of the film’s running time, and things only go downhill from here.

The supporting cast range from the serviceable to the annoying. Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen put in tedious, pantomime-like performances as the corrupt master and mistress of a local watering hole. Elsewhere, young British hopeful Eddie Redmayne pouts throughout as the young, hopeless romantic Marius, whose Muppet-like falsetto is balanced surprisingly well by the cruelly overlooked, formidable presence of newcomer Samantha Barks as unrequited lover Éponine.

But then there’s Russell Crowe. Oh, Russell. While he looks at home in designer Paco Delgado’s period costume, this Kiwi’s voice is a quivering whimper in comparison to his fellow cast members. Trying so desperately to hit the notes, he forgets to act, wandering across the gaudy set design looking more like Oliver Twist’s beadle Mr Bumble than a fearsome upholder of the law.

It’s an appropriate comparison, actually. When battle commences on the streets of Paris, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Dickens’s masterwork. The Twist effect is evident in the drab cobbled streets, the squalor, prostitution, alcohol swilling, and an annoying little Artful Dodger of sorts who has a remarkable cockney accent for someone so young – and so French. Unlike that childhood favourite, Les Misérables is too depressing and evocatively clawing that it is never an enjoyable viewing experience.

Such grandiose ugliness is juxtaposed with Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen’s insistence on filming everything in low-angled close up. Effectively, Hooper wants it both ways: to be simultaneously epic and claustrophobic. It works very sparingly in the smaller, character monologue moments. But more often than not, the one-take, continuously moving handheld camera work is incongruous to the brilliant musical composition, and it could make you feel a little nauseous.

Despite its many flaws, Les Misérables is a film that stinks of self-righteousness. It wants to be loved, to be cried over and to be revered as a masterpiece. While Hooper and co give it their best melodic shot, the film is ultimately a gruelling watch. An experiential cinematic endeavour, you’ll come out either singing its praises or running for cover. Either way, it’s pretty miserable stuff.

Les Misérables (11)

Dir: Tom Hooper; US drama/musical, 2012, 158 mins; Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Premieres March 21
Playing nationwide

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