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.

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