LES MISERABLES (M)
Director: Tom Hooper
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks
Rating: 3 stars
With its Oscar campaign gaining inevitable momentum, this latest adaptation of Victor Hugo's colossal 1862 novel wears its awards ambitions on its sleeve.
Short of guns blazing and trumpets blaring, director Tom Hooper - who wooed the Academy last year with his impeccable breakout hit, The King's Speech - knows which buttons to push to get the attention of Oscar voters.
Hugh Jackman, Australia's song-and-dance man par excellence, is an awards shoo-in as the central character of Jean Valjean, a man given a brutal 17-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. In true heroic fashion, he jumps parole and re-emerges, 17 years later, as a fine, upstanding gentleman and savvy businessman.
The obvious parallel - of his character's journey to redemption and rebirth echoing Australia's convict past - might help explain why Cameron Mackintosh's 1985 musical famously drew a record crowd of 125,000 to see it performed in Sydney on Australia Day, 1989.
Still, for every Jackman we need a Crowe, who plays Valjean's relentless pursuer, the tough French cop Javert. While Jackman's tonsils were never in any doubt, despite a mind-numbing 150 minutes of relentlessly sung verse, Crowe's vocal flair might come as a surprise.
True, his voice is noticeably thinner in projection, but armed with a suitably deep baritone, he is, at least, an impressive match for Jackman, and one who belies his own musical heritage (Crowe started in musicals, including, believe it or not, a turn in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Watching the pair battle it out on screen, which at times veers towards pantomime, does have its own significance.
The big rub, though, is that the vocals were recorded as they were sung by the actors on set (or, rather, in front of a green screen, since many of the visuals are clearly CGI). Not to be outdone, Anne Hathaway gives her own scene-stealing turn as Fantine, the young mum thrown out to pasture (or to rot). She famously allowed her hair to be shorn on screen and gives Susan Boyle a run for her money with the grand but mournful epic I Dreamed a Dream.
No one goes quietly in this battle of wills, in which every line is sung with operatic pretensions. Even the most diehard fan might suffer fatigue. Yet for all its grand, overblown designs, there are genuinely engaging surprises to be had. My Week with Marilyn's Eddie Redmayne elicits impressively tender expression in song (Amanda Seyfried manages to hold her own in response), while fellow Brits Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are a riot as a couple of no-good landlords robbing everyone blind. Their central performance in the tavern provides the film's highlight and much-needed comic relief.
Positioned as a strong contender among the Boxing Day deluge of releases, Hooper's film is likely to hold as wide an appeal as its source material (previews begin this week). More than 60 million people have seen this tale of the 1832 Paris uprising (not the French Revolution) performed on stage. There have been at least 60 film and television adaptations. It's been translated into dozens of languages and reworked and reinterpreted for radically different markets. If only Hugo could have known.
Although his book has been held up as a prime mover of 19th-century literature, at the time, it was attacked and roundly dismissed (rather like Mackintosh's musical adaptation).
One could argue that Les Mis on screen is much the same as it is on stage: often derided for its shortcomings but jubilantly embraced by its audience, who will no doubt flock to see this. What surprises me about this affair isn't that it is entirely sung, nor that its main cast can hit the notes, but that it feels rather predictable in its execution.
The camera swoops and stays tight on faces, the modest Parisian set reminds one of its stage origins, and the thing refuses to wrap up, even as its running time exceeds all reasonable expectations. Like the stage version (which runs even longer), this is Broadway entertainment away from the confines of theatre but told with the stage's limitations intact. I was expecting something more.
Opens Boxing Day