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

2.00

12A

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
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker