Their heads shorn and beards grown wild, prisoners pull on heavy ropes while singing in defiance: “Look down, look down!” Among them is Jean Valjean, who is serving the final day of 19 winters spent in shackles for stealing a bit of bread to feed his sister’s children. He is the hero of Les Misérables, the big, bombastic film treatment of the venerable stage musical, itself based on Victor Hugo’s novel set in 19th-century France.
Befitting the grand-scale melodrama of its songs, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has crafted a film of outsized emotions, sweeping shots and persistent close-ups. Like the musical, the film is sung through, and the cast gives it their all — some have argued too much — with Broadway-style vocalizations that were performed live on set rather than pre-recorded.
Though free of his shackles, Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is confined to parole for the rest of his life. Humbled and inspired by an act of kindness after being apprehended by the police for stealing, he emerges eight years later a transformed man, having assumed a new identity as a respectable factory owner.
Among his employees is Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who works to support her daughter, Cosette. When Fantine is forced to leave the factory, she turns to prostitution. To the dying Fantine, Valjean promises to rescue Cosette. His search leads to a pair of criminal innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), but not before their comic-relief “Master of the House” number.
Hooper goes full-bore from start to finish, making Les Miz feel tense, then exhausting, especially as it nears the end of its 150-minute runtime. His in-your-face depiction of the poor and their squalor — emaciated faces diseased with sores — can be seen as brave realism, or, less charitably, tasteless in the context of a big movie musical.
The vocal performances are far from perfect, but they are impassioned. So much so that the moist eyes on the screen (Oscar bait?) reach a point of diminishing returns. Hooper seems to have forgotten or doesn’t care that his actors don’t have to shout to the rafters to be heard. Among the cast, Crowe fares the worst, in singing and performance, as Valjean’s nemesis, the intrepid Inspector Javert. His vocal strain recalls Pierce Brosnan’s foghorn timbre in Mamma Mia. Crowe’s portrayal is colorless, and he looks unsure of himself.
As it piles on the plots — rebels fighting for revolution, unrequited love — Les Miz reaches the limits of its emotional attack. Toward the end — trust me, there’s an end, though it feels like it could go on into the next day — the music becomes ever more valuable, as the reprisal of songs like “Look Down,” “Red and Black,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” injects a sense of urgency. An exception is Jackman’s curiously underwhelming “Bring Him Home,” a lovely song that tests the limits of his register but will nevertheless bring out the hankies. While the lyrics of the songs can be broad and trite, they are also full of raw feeling. If you let that passion get to you, Les Misérables works.