There are no mysteries left as regards Les Miserables. The most successful musical in history by any reasonable measure, the show has been seen by more than 60 million people in 43 countries and translated into 21 different languages. The Broadway production ran continuously for 16 years, and the original English-language production in London's West End is still running after 27 years. That means pretty much anyone who loves musicals has seen it, and many fans are all too happy to prove the point by bursting into one of the score's unspeakably catchy songs. How could a cinematic translation possibly add anything significant to the unstoppable Les Mis juggernaut?
To the credit of original producer Cameron Mackintosh — who still controls the property — Les Miserables the movie doesn't attempt to recreate the experience of attending a theatrical production. The film is a wholehearted attempt to reinvent the original work for an entirely different medium. It's still a huge story of personal struggles set against the backdrop of the revolutionary period in early 19th century France. But much of the grand historical sweep that elevated the play above less substantial musicals has been intentionally sacrificed to deliver what a theatrical production cannot: intimate performances. For the most part, Les Mis serves up 160 minutes worth of (mostly) talented singers performing much-loved songs in full close-up. That's not going to win over new fans, but it's pretty much guaranteed to please the old ones. At the very least, no one's going to accuse Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) of disrespecting his source material.
Hooper made one crucial choice that makes his film's modest success possible: Unlike familiar Hollywood musicals of previous eras, Les Mis offers not a single moment of lip-synching. All the actors performed the songs live on-set with help from a live pianist, whose playing was transmitted to the singers via invisible earpieces. This technique lends all the performances an immediacy and authenticity not normally found in movie musicals. The difference is striking, and it's especially valuable to this musical because the story is told almost exclusively through lyrics — Les Mis has only a handful of spoken lines. The wispy orchestral music placed behind the vocal performances is nothing much to listen to, but it's intended to gently support both the needed exposition and the singers' emotionally charged performances.
Those performances are strong. The biggest surprise is Anne Hathaway, whose moving turn as Fantine, the tragically fallen factory worker, embodies the inequities at the root of social unrest in the country. The movie never fully recovers from her character's early exit. Hugh Jackman manages an appealing performance as former convict Jean Valjean, but Russell Crowe's Inspector Javert sticks out like a sore thumb — Crowe simply lacks the singing ability to keep up with the rest of the cast. The film also suffers as the story turns to its younger generation of budding revolutionaries, led by Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, who just don't possess the depth of feeling displayed by the ensemble cast in the movie's first half. They can sing, but their screen time seems designed mainly to attract younger filmgoers. Score it as a victory for the older set, both on screen and in the audience. — KEN KORMAN