Ungainly as a narrative and clumsy as a musical, this adaptation of Les Miserables features powerhouse singing performances so galvanizing that the movie’s flaws hardly matter. This is a Les Miserables inspired by Christina Aguilera’s “Voice,” for better and for worse.
In a performance that makes his Wolverine adventures look like an even bigger waste of time than I already thought, Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, an unjustly imprisoned peasant who has been released in the midst of the class turmoil of early 1800s France. A Broadway veteran, Jackman makes clear early on that this is where he belongs: being bold not in claws, but in song.
Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) seems overwhelmed by the movie’s larger set pieces, but he has made one inspired decision: to film the solo numbers in extreme close-up, with the actor’s face in the far-right corner of the screen and nothing on the left to distract us. (The singing was also recorded live, on the set.) Perhaps knowing that many audiences will be coming with the experience of the stage production, Hooper gives us the one thing the theater can’t: the immediacy and intimacy of the cinema’s most blunt tool.
Jackman earns every close-up, as do Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks in supporting parts. The reason to see the movie, however, is Anne Hathaway. She has a small role too – that of Fantine, a single mother who falls from factory work to prostitution – but her tragic solo, performed early on, leaves an aftershock that shudders through the rest of the picture. “I Dreamed a Dream” is hardly the most rousing of Claude-Michel Schonberg’s original songs, but Hathaway gives it a trembling desperation that’s overwhelming. If Les Miserables is essentially a season of “The Voice” packed into one movie, she wins.