IoS film review: Les Misérables; Gangster Squad

Anne Hathaway's rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' is heart-rending. The rest is just chest-beating …

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The Independent Culture

There's no getting around it. The one spine-tingling, hair-raising sequence in Les Misérables is Anne Hathaway's just-hand-her-the-Oscar rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream". She performs most of the song in one unforgiving, unbroken close-up, singing live on set. Her character is racked with grief and rage, and as she alternately sobs and belts out the melody, you can't help but feel that you're witnessing something extraordinary. Indeed, even if you prefer your West End shows to be sprinkled with jokes and toe-tapping tunes, you're forced to concede that there might just be something to these quasi-operatic, sung-through epics, after all.

And epic Les Misérables most certainly is. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's stage version of Victor Hugo's doorstop novel was the most mega of the Eighties' mega-musicals, and the film version, directed by Tom Hooper (The King's Speech), doesn't back away from that heritage. It's a parade of major events and weighty themes, tragic deaths and symbolic rebirths. Despite the casting of Amanda Seyfried, no one's going to mistake it for Mamma Mia.

It opens in 1815, when Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released after serving 19 years on a chain gang for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Now looking like Gollum with a beard, he breaks his parole and adopts a new identity, eventually becoming a factory owner and town mayor. But the pursuit by the irritatingly monomaniacal policeman, Javert (an ill-at-ease Russell Crowe), obliges him to embark on another new life, this time inspired by Fantine (Hathaway), one of his factory girls, and her daughter Cosette (played, when she's older, by Seyfried).

By this point, all the rain and mud and starving proles could well have been overwhelming, but Les Misérables sweeps you along with its thriller plot, its emotive music and Herbert Kretzmer's clever lyrics (I was partial to the "victim"/"nicked 'im" rhyme). It's only in its later stretches that your attention begins to wander. Admittedly, that might be down to fatigue. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide a panto interlude as a pair of grotesque innkeepers imported from Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. But that still leaves two-and-a-half hours of chest-beating and soul-bearing, which is more than the human brain can take. You can grow tired of the film's stomach-turning camera movements, too. The cinematographer chases the actors around as if he's a Panorama reporter badgering a crooked landlord, and then, when he catches up with them, insists on sticking his lense right up their noses.

But beyond all that, Les Misérables is markedly less spectacular in its second half. Early on, we see Jackman hiking over mountaintops, and heaving a ship into a vast drydock alongside hundreds of other slaves. But much of the film's final act is confined to one cramped studio set which represents downtown Paris. The action should be momentous, considering that a revolution is brewing, but instead it seems paltry – and altogether more like a stage show than a film.

The trouble is that we've been captured by the story of Valjean's battle with Javert and with his own past, so it's a let-down when he retreats into the background, leaving us with the cosseted Cosette and her posh beau, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), two drippy youngsters who fall in love at first sight. When Seyfried is trilling away in her garden, and a butterfly flits past, it feels as if we've drifted a long way from the full-throated urgency of Hathaway's astounding solo.

The best and worst thing about Gangster Squad is its complete lack of originality. Supposedly based on the true story of the Los Angeles Police Department's campaign against Mickey Cohen's crime syndicate in 1949, it's actually based on The Untouchables, Dick Tracy and a thousand Warner Bros gangster movies.

The film's incorruptible hero, Josh Brolin, is a decorated war veteran with a heavily pregnant wife. The police chief, Nick Nolte, instructs him to wage a "guerilla war ... for the soul of Los Angeles", so he assembles his A-team: a Mr Cool (Ryan Gosling), a gadgeteer (Giovanni Ribisi), a Wild West gunslinger (Robert Patrick), a token Mexican (Michael Peña), and a token African American (Anthony Mackie). Emma Stone slinks by as a moll with a heart, and Sean Penn gobbles the scenery as a psychopath with a one-eyed sidekick.

There's not a scintilla of reality or innovation in the whole live-action cartoon, but it is possible to admire the gusto with which its director, Ruben Fleischer, shovels on the clichés. Not even Mickey Cohen is as gleefully blatant about his thieving as Gangster Squad is.