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Les Misérables misses the power of its source material

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Maybe it’s not necessary for me to lay out my Les Misérables bona fides. Maybe it doesn’t matter that I adore the Schönberg/Boublil musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, that I’ve owned the original Broadway cast recording, that I’ve wept to “A Little Fall of Rain” more times than I can count. But I’m pretty sure this is a stage production that’s almost impossible to turn into a movie with the same power. And I’m damned sure that if there were a way to accomplish that task, this isn’t it.

That much is clear almost from director Tom Hooper’s opening shot, which sweeps down from the sky into the French shipyards circa 1815 where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is working off his 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread under the watchful eye of the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). “This is going to be a movie, not some stage-bound adaptation of a play,” Hooper all but lays out in onscreen captions — and in so doing, he shows he doesn’t really understand Les Mis at all.

Because Les Mis, fundamentally, is opera: emotions writ large, combined with stagecraft, meant to be absorbed while taking in the entirety of the scene. And there are moments when Hooper shows he understands how to bring this emotion to the surface. It’s there when Anne Hathaway — as Fantine — tears into her show-stopping aria “I Dreamed a Dream,” a single-take performance that’s riveting in its focused intensity. And it’s present in a similar single-take song, the young soldier Marius’ (Eddie Redmayne) lament for fallen friends “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” While the approach may be obvious — just let the singer and the song hold the screen — it’s powerful nonetheless.

But there’s no similar way to handle scenes in which a single voice isn’t the center of attention. “A Heart Full of Love” — the crucial showcase in the romantic triangle between Marius, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and the girl who loves Marius unrequitedly, Éponine (Samantha Barks) — never once places all three performers in the same shot, turning the song into a series of close-up snippets with no sense of the connections that will change their fate.

A different problem plagues the casting of Crowe as Javert, whose decades-long pursuit of Valjean, and his insistence that a criminal cannot be rehabilitated, provide the story’s central conflict. It’s not, however, the problem that will be most often expressed — that his voice, despite being frontman for a band, isn’t up to the task. Jackman, a seasoned musical-theater stage performer, gets it; Crowe does what he can, never having exercised the operatic muscles he’s called on to use.

Yet even when Les Misérables plays to the balcony — as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do for the comic relief — it still often feels stunted and ineffective, a story out of its element. At the end of the day, Tom Hooper doesn’t realize that live singing on a movie set isn’t enough to re-create the majestic Les Misérables experience — not when so many of the people involved insist on turning it into… well, a movie. 

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