Here in Canada, when kids of my era were growing up, it was a mandatory class field trip to see the stage version of Les Miserables. I recall going to the musical at least three times in the '90s, and it was a veritable treat of song (they said "shit!") and pomp. It also appealed to me because there are several children in the story, and, of course, as Canadians, we're expected to learn French from a young age -- finally, here was a play that actually featured the language prominently.

So I wondered: could director Tom Hooper successfully adapt all of those childhood excitements into his 2+ hour film? Could Victor Hugo's marvelous tome (finally) carry over to the big screen? Other directors had relatively unsuccessfully tried before him, so had Hooper found the magic sauce -- the creme fraiche, if you will -- to make the perfect movie meal?

The short answer is: yes and no. While there are several aspects of the movie that provide pleasure, there are far more parts that provoke yawns and heavy eyelids. The film itself is trying so hard to reach that epic, Oscar-worthy level, it inevitably stumbles on its way to the goal. You have to hand it to the cast, though: I don't know if I've ever seen such an earnest group of singers/actors in my life -- their protruding jugulars from start to finish are a testament to their efforts. The passion is there, but unfortunately, much like we learn through Les Miserables epic tale, we can try as hard as we want to reach the unreachable, but sometimes it just isn't meant to be.

The movie starts out in a mesmerizing fashion: we swoop in to meet convict protagonist Jean Valjean as he slaves away (quite literally) on board a ship. The overture plays and we're treated to the first tune, 'Work Song.' Hugh Jackman as Valjean, astonishingly gaunt and almost unrecognizable, is brilliant; his years of Broadway experience are evident as his voice booms and carries. The only problem is that this in turn makes all the other actors without stage experience stand out like sore thumbs. Case in point: Russell Crowe. As villain/obsessive nemesis Javert, his baritone is flat and unnecessarily loud. A colleague of mine compared him to a child performing in his first-ever solo role: arms rigidly planted at his sides, face-forward, that look of ingrained fear in his eyes as he stares into the spotlight. It seems as if poor Crowe bit off more than he could chew, but hey, at least he's trying. Hard.

Anne Hathaway (as Fantine) also falls into this category. We meet her shortly after Valjean proclaims that he's a new man (after escaping Javert's clutches and being given a "second chance" by a priest), and he takes it upon himself to rescue Fantine and her infant child, Cossette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried). Critics are lauding Hathaway's performance as brilliant, fantastic, and every other positive, glowing descriptor known to man, and I'm not saying her brief solos aren't well-sung, but just because an actress shaves her head and sings a well-known musical tune, with snot, tears and the whole bit, doesn't automatically qualify it as an Oscar-winning performance. With nowhere near the power of Jackman's voice, Hathaway is adequate as Fantine, but not the earth-shattering juggernaut that most critics will have you believe.

Somewhere around the quarter-mark,we're introduced to innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who both inject much-needed humour and levity into the movie. As in the stage musical, the Thenardiers are absolutely necessary in terms of adding colour to the greyness of the subject matter. All of their scenes instantly became my favourites, and Cohen in particular is magnetic -- the role goes a long way in illustrating that he should never, ever be pigeonholed into Borat-type characters.

As the movie plods on and we get into the French Revolution storyline, it completely unravels and turns into a collection of seemingly never-ending songs with repetitive verses and choruses. It is clear that what works on stage doesn't adequately translate to screen. Hooper tries his damndest, though, by moving the camera within inches of each actor's face, probably in an attempt to make the proceedings more intimate, as if you were watching the play. At some points, you can literally count the pores on Jackman's nose, or see the bubble of mucous forming on the bottom of Hathaway's nostril. It is distracting, to say the least, and at times disturbing and nauseating.

With so much focus on the individual song performances, much of the intensity of the love story is lost. The triangle between Cosette, Marius (a sincere Eddie Redmayne) and Eponine (an impressive Samantha Barks) seems to materialize out of thin air, and their passions are never fully explained. It seems that, in order to get the singing on par with the stage, Hooper and his cast neglected the very thing they're paid to do: direct and act. The script suffers, too, and at the obvious midpoint after a rousing 'One Day More,' I was thirsting for an Intermission. A Pavlovian response from my childhood, no doubt.

True fans of Les Miserables will either thoroughly enjoy this rendition or tolerate it (as I have). Anyone unfamiliar with the play probably won't even bother. Somewhere at the core of the movie the heart of the musical is there, strong and beating, but sometimes it's better left to stage.

(Note: Daniel Huttlestone, who plays mischievous Gavroche, is worth pointing out. He steals every scene he's in and once again shows that stage experience -- the boy has performed in musicals and plays, and even recently played Gavroche in the London version -- is key to movie adaptations.)

'Les Miserables' opens in theaters on Christmas Day.



CATEGORIES Movies