Movie review: 'Les Miserables' hits too many wrong notes

Anne Hathaway is one of the few highlights of "Les Miserables."

Photo by Laurie Sparham, ©Universal Pictures

Anne Hathaway is one of the few highlights of "Les Miserables."

The motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the ...

Rating: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

Length: 157 minutes

Released: December 25, 2012 Nationwide

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: William Nicholson, Herbert Kretzmer

More info and showtimes »

"Les Miserables," based on the novel by Victor Hugo, has set numerous box-office records as a stage production. It will have a much shorter shelf life on the screen.

Theater fans may disagree, but for the millions of others who have never seen it on stage — not to mention the millions who aren't fans of musicals in any form — "Les Mis" is a tough nut to crack. It's long — 157 minutes. Nearly every scene is dark and depressing, and the overall mood is gloomy (a friend once nicknamed it "The Glums").

The Hollywood stars cast to lift the film's profile (and heaviness) are a mixed bag. Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, the guy who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and he does a lot to make the film bearable with both his voice and his acting. Russell Crowe is another story. As Javert, the intractable policeman determined to re-incarcerate Jean, he is poorly suited vocally, and his facial repertoire contains exactly two expressions: uncomfortable and more uncomfortable.

Anne Hathaway, as ill-fated single mom Fantine, exudes beauty and integrity from beneath the squalor of her circumstances, and she has the vocal chops to pull off the role. But Amanda Seyfried, who was able to hold up the ingenue end in "Mamma Mia," is woefully inadequate as Cosette, Fantine's daughter.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen fizzle in every way as Madame Thenardier and her husband, the so-called comic relief.

"Les Miserables" begins in 1815 France, as Jean is being released from his years of hard labor. Javert expects Jean to commit another crime, and when Jean fails to meet his parole requirements, finding him and bringing him to justice becomes Javert's obsession.

After a rough start, Jean becomes a wealthy and respected member of the community, though he must keep his true identity hidden. Fantine is one of the workers in a factory he owns until she ends up on the street, with few options for survival.

Jean becomes the guardian of Fantine's little girl, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), devoting his life to keeping her safe. When Cosette grows up and catches the eye of a young revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Jean sees her suitor as nearly as much of a threat as Javert, who always seems to be closing in.

"Les Miserables" adds one new song to the familiar show, which features lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil. It is nearly all sung. That means when voices are unclear, especially in the big ensemble numbers, it's easy for listeners to lose interest. It's also something of a trick to figure out who and how important some of the characters are.

Of all the big musicals of the past 30 years, "Les Mis" has the fewest breakout songs that catch a viewer's ear. That's not to say that there isn't some lovely music, but it works much better in context than it does on its own.

That's another reason why supporting players like Redmayne and Samantha Barks (as Eponine) stand out vocally more than the stars do. Their stories are more poignant and their songs more meaningful; plus, they both have fine voices.

Director Tom Hooper tries to make "Les Miserables" a spectacle, but it's no must-see. At least it's not a spectacular mess — just a mess.

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Comments » 1

jneal11254 writes:

In my experience, most movies condemned by Betsy Pickle are worth seeing. I thought the Sentinel had finally had the sense to retire her. So it is a shock that the movie lasts 3 hours and is frequently depressing? Millions of people who loved the three hour Broadway show must have been wrong. Which scenes would Betsy have cut out of the musical? Those supposedly forgettable songs she complains about are marvelous. Unlike another great musical, Porgy and Bess, I can't think of a single song I would delete. Ms. Pickle, did you see the stage show or read the book? A cast of hundreds and only four survive to the last scene. I'll grant you that this show will not be for folks with short attention spans or macular degeneration. Using the approach of discarding productions that are long and depressing, we could start first with Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Macbeth. Not every great show is bright eyed and bushy tailed.

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