You're going to be hearing a lot about Anne Hathaway's rendition of I Dreamed a Dream over the coming months, so perhaps that's the best place to start with this film version of Les Misérables. It's true that Hathaway's performance of the musical's most iconic song is the highlight of this film; a highlight that comes far too early. The scene occurs when her character Fantine is at her lowest ebb, having been forced into a life of degradation as she attempts to provide for her young daughter, and Hathaway imbues her performance with a raw emotion which feels true in a way that little in this film does. Perhaps it's telling that the film's most resonant scene is also one of its simplest; I Dreamed a Dream is filmed in a single shot, with the camera holding on Hathaway to catch every tearful quiver in her face. It's as if Tom Hooper realised that this was his movie's big number and decided he'd just better get out of the way.
Sadly, the Hooper touch can been seen all over the rest of Les Misérables, with the director's smudgy fingerprints visible on every inexplicable canted angle, every extravagant aerial shot, every scene in which both sound and visuals are turned up to 11. The film opens underwater, looking up at a tattered French flag, before the camera breaks the surface and continues to climb, allowing us a view of a mighty warship being pulled into the dock by hundreds of convicts. One of these is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whom Hooper's camera locates by swooping in from the sky for a close-up, before we look up again and find Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) glaring down at his prisoners. "Look down / look down" the condemned men chant in unison as waves crash, the boat creaks and torrential rain hammers down.
This cacophonous introduction sets the tone. Les Misérables attempts to beat the audience into submission by pitching almost every musical number at the same level of intensity. The film's over-the-top, melodramatic tone is coupled with an attempt at grimy realism in Hooper's use of handheld cameras and the artfully squalid production design, all of which suggests that the director isn't really sure how to play it. His artistic choices are a consistent horror – all leering close-ups and skewed angles – and watching performers sing as if they're attempting to reach the back of the balconies while the camera sits inches from their faces is a draining experience. The big innovation of this Les Misérables (although the technique has been used before) is the decision to record the singing live on set, which helps bring across the emotional weight of the actors' vocal performances. A nice idea in theory, and it certainly works a couple of times (notably in the above-mentioned Hathaway showstopper), but too often we can hear the strain in these voices as the technique distracts from the content. The one cast member who matches and even threatens to overshadow Hathaway is the exceptional Samantha Barks, who has the benefit of being familiar with the role of Éponine from her days on the West End stage.
As a veteran musical performer, Jackman handles all of this better than most leading men would and he throws himself into the role of Valjean with admirable gusto. It's a shame he doesn't have a more worthy adversary than Crowe, who never looks comfortable in his part and whose flat vocal range is particularly damaging in his musical duels with Jackman, which often threaten to become shouting matches. Crowe is also hurt by the fact that his role is so poorly conceived. By the simple fact of having to compress an enormous novel into a sub-3 hour story, the narrative of Les Misérables often feels rushed and insubstantial, and the characterisation is sketchy. Javert's obsessive decades-long pursuit of Valjean on a minor charge just seems silly, and later on, when the teenage Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love at first sight with young rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne), we don't believe in the depth of their feeling because it develops in such a hurried manner.
I guess you have to keep things moving if you're going to get through 50 songs in less than three hours, though. Seriously. Fifty songs! There were 49 in the stage version and the addition of another is very revealing of the filmmakers' true motives: "We've gotta make a play for the Best Original Song Oscar, never mind if it's an unnecessary burden on an already overstuffed production!" Wall-to-wall songs might be well suited to a stage (where there are natural breaks for applause, stage movements, etc.) but it's a killer for this movie, which continually struggles to find a natural segue from one number to the next and ends up feeling very disjointed. Will fans care? If all you want is a faithful translation of the musical you saw and loved on stage then perhaps this is the film for you, but if you want an adaptation that works as cinema you've come to the wrong place. Les Misérables is an aesthetic disaster and a torturous wall of sound, simultaneously tough on the eyes and the ears. Do you hear the people sing? I did, and how I prayed for them to stop.