Les Misérables 

I'm among the few who have never seen the stage-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel — you know, Lay Mizz — but I've read the novel. (Abridged, in high school, long ago.) So my occasional, helpless reaction during The King's Speech director Tom Hooper's adaptation of the musical version of Les Misérables — why are they singing? — probably won't be replicated by many viewers.

The film's style marks an ambitious departure from the recent spate of Broadway musicals-turned-films. The vocal performances are captured live rather than pre-recorded and lip-synched for filming, which preserves the intimacy of film and theatrical performance that's often lost in movie musicals. And the mise-en-scène and cinematography depart from the usual staginess. This Les Misérables isn't trying to replicate the stage experience for its built-in audience but rather transform it into something worthy of a major film. If it's all a bit — or more than a bit — overblown at times, that just comes with the territory.

I was surprised by how many of the characters and how much of the story felt familiar from my long-ago encounter with the source text. So much so that, even at 157 minutes, the narrative often felt short-circuited. I could have gone for less spectacle and more story, though viewers more interested in the musical experience likely won't feel the same.

While I appreciate the film's ambition, I found the success varies wildly depending on the quality of individual songs and, even more so, individual performances.

Anne Hathaway's early, extended cameo as the doomed Fantine (pictured above) is every bit as captivating as you've heard, as much before and after her Big Solo as during. She's so good she seems to exist somewhat outside the film itself. Runners-up, for me, are Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who bring plenty of muggy swagger to their (black-) comic-relief roles as the shady innkeepers the Thénardiers. Less impressive is the second-half puppy love between Eddie Redmayne (as revolutionary Marius) and Amanda Seyfried (as Fantine's grown daughter Cosette). And whenever poor Russell Crowe is forced to sing as dyspeptic cop Javert, I was calling "Cut!" on the music. Hugh Jackman offers a solid middle ground as protagonist Jean Valjean.

Les Misérables opens on Tuesday, December 25th, at multiple locations.

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