Heaven knows I'm miserable now

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. 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. 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.

For much of the time Jackman brays, an unlovely sound that keeps going out of tune. 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. 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 light relief provided by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a lowlife pair of innkeepers grows tiresome, though the former does provide a laugh when he bids a farewell to Cosette as "Colette" (he later amends it to "Courgette").

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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