Heaven knows I'm miserable now

Film review: Les Misérables: Tom Hooper directs Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman in the big screen version of Victor Hugo's tale



Tom Hooper has made one good decision in adapting the stage musical Les Misérables, which itself has been adapted from Victor Hugo's immense novel. In most screen musicals the actors lip-sync to songs on a pre-recorded track. Hooper instead has got his cast to sing live on camera, aiming to replicate the spontaneity and freshness that have bewitched fans of the stage show – which is still packing them in, of course.

The great beneficiary of this is Anne Hathaway, whose version of "I Dreamed a Dream" is fierce and true, her martyred mother Fantine delivering a sob in the throat that's very you-are-there. I have to say, it was moving. The rest of the time I just wanted to get moving, far away from its oppressive clamour.

For in most other respects this is a really poor movie, uneven, bloated, bombastic and horribly strained. You know the awkward habit of people who stand too close to you when they speak? That's this movie. Whereas the stage allows a decorous distance between performer and audience, the camera in "Les Mis" positions itself just below the actor's nose, leaving no room to breathe. Why was it thought necessary to have close-ups of everybody's tonsils and teeth? In the case of Anne Hathaway the effect of her mouth opening in song is quite disconcerting – you could fit an Oscar statuette in there, sideways. But at least she can sing...

The surprise of Les Misérables for me was twofold. The first is the performance of Hugh Jackman, a likeable actor whose stage-work has been much admired (they say he was terrific in Oklahoma!). Jackman plays the pivotal role of Jean Valjean, whom we first see in 1815 as an emaciated convict doing hard labour for the crime of stealing a loaf. After he breaks parole he vanishes, reappearing eight years later in Montreuil as a factory owner and town mayor. But he can't shake off the pursuing fury of his one-time captor Javert (Russell Crowe), whose obsessive and inexplicable antagonism towards Valjean is the engine of the whole plot.

Jackman, sorely tried by fate, needs a voice to communicate these woes, and to my ears he just doesn't have it. For much of the time he brays, an unlovely sound that keeps going out of tune. In one song, "Bring Him Home", he has to reach high on tippy-toes for the last note, and the uncertainty of his getting there is excruciating. He sounds like he's having a cow.

Perhaps he took one look at the lyrics and thought: I'd better belt these out or I'm dead. Because that's the other surprise. The songs – music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer – are astonishing in their power-ballad mediocrity. There's not a single seductive tune in the entire score. Which makes you wonder what on earth induced Russell Crowe to sign on. Even if he had been given a decent song he couldn't sing it.

A friend reckoned Crowe's strangulated voice sounded a bit Elvis Costello, and I spent the rest of the film trying to picture him in large black-framed spectacles. His poptastic stylings are different, at any rate, from the tremulous vibrato Jackman smothers everything in. But it's also mysterious that he wanted to play Javert, whose dedication to tormenting Valjean has no psychological interest and indeed comes to seem merely churlish. Perhaps he just liked pronouncing "monsieur" as "murh-shewer".

The ensemble nature of the piece ought to inject some variety, yet it just means that the awkwardness gets shared around. The second act, which shifts to Paris in 1832, trains the spotlight on Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a revolutionary firebrand who falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine's grown-up daughter, and is in turn loved by the forlorn Eponine (Samantha Barks). These three acquit themselves pretty well, Redmayne in particular steadying the ship with his firm tenor.

The depiction of the city in rebellious tumult, however, can only be a fizzle when "manning the barricades" is restricted to a single pile of furniture blocking a street corner. On stage this probably works OK – here it's farcical. When the army shows up with cannons, you wonder why they don't just send in a few infantry to step over it. The light relief provided by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a lowlife pair of innkeepers grows tiresome as well, though the former does provide a laugh when he bids a farewell to Cosette as "Colette" (he later amends it to "Courgette").

So please excuse my being baffled at the success of Les Misérables, which this movie version will undoubtedly repeat, if not in quite the same numbers. (I read somewhere that since the show opened in 1985 it has been seen by more than 60 million people.) It can't be the music, which is terrible. It can't be the romance, which is wet, wet, wet. Could the appeal lie in its simple (Christian) allegory of suffering and redemption, in its rewarding of the man who lives by compassion over the man implacably driven to persecute? But then it would require characters of much greater complexity than Valjean and Javert to animate them. Perhaps it's simple spectacle, with the massed ensemble and the revolving stages, that lends it enchantment, a quality notably absent in its transfer to the screen.

The closest the film comes to theatre is the final tableau of the cast, clambering back on the barricade to sing their hearts out again, even the ones who died in the story. Did I sense in their joyous warbling a relief that it was over? No – I was just sensing my own.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015