There is a moment early on in Tom Hooper’s handsome Les Misérables (2012) in which Fantine (Anne Hathaway), laid low by life, penniless and sacked from her job with a child to care for, is reduced to selling her hair. Anyone who has seen Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) can’t help but think of Falconetti, who was similarly robbed of her coiffure, during the anguished shots of Fantine’s mop being brutally removed. In fact, The Passion of Joan of Arc, with its endless close-ups of dour faces, seems to be the very inspiration for the look of Les Misérables, a movie based on the beloved stage musical, which gives us something we can’t get in the theater— inches away from the performers.
Much of Les Misérables is shot in close-up, often with a distorted fish-eye lens, so that we can peer into the souls of Fantine, Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Javert (Russell Crowe), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Éponine (Samantha Barks) even while they are pouring theirs out. This makes for a powerful tableau of raw emotional performances coupled with polished emotional music, and the movie shamelessly tugs at every heartstring you have until it’s got every tear you can shed. It’s in line with a long Hollywood tradition of magisterial, if slightly bloated, musical adaptations that don’t try to improve on the stage version but only attempt to sweep you away. West Side Story (1961) is that way. Showboat (1936) is that way. Les Misérables may be the most that way.
Welcome to mid-19th–century France, a place in permanent winter where the rain and snow fall even while the sun shines and a man can get 19 years on the chain gang for stealing bread. That is Jean Valjean, who labors away under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert, whose fate is intertwined with his own. When Valjean is given parole, he encounters a kind bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in the West End, and the part of the bishop is expanded here to showcase him) who points the frustrated Valjean to the path of love and forgiveness, after which Valjean breaks his parole and swears to live a noble life. He turns up a few years later (under a different name) as the mayor of a small town and the owner of a factory where struggling peasants like Fantine work, although you wouldn’t know Fantine was struggling by the look of her. The movie employs an ancient Hollywood trick of juxtaposing our beautiful stars against the filthy rabble as if they were the same. Fantine is introduced by way of a pan shot across the faces of her greasy, unkempt and unappealing coworkers until suddenly you realize, “Hey, there’s Anne Hathaway!”
This phenomena appears to affect only the female stars of Les Misérables (Éponine, the other street urchin, shows her poverty with a few fashionably placed dirt smudges on her cheek), as Valjean looks convincingly ragged when he’s freed from the chain gang and will certainly get his hands dirty when he reaches the Paris sewers. Fantine is unceremoniously turned out by the factory and plummets to the aforementioned selling of her hair (with her body to follow) until she is discovered by Valjean, who learns that Fantine’s child is being brought up by the cruel, scheming innkeepers Thénardier and wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who has somehow made a second career for herself by being mean to children on screen). At Fantine’s deathbed, Valjean vows to help the child but has been found out by Javert and is now on the run. He buys enough time to collect the girl from her unseemly custodians and smuggles her into Paris. Another decade passes and the capital city is pulsing with revolutionary fervor. Valjean and the girl, now a young lady, Cosette, have been laying low but Cosette locks eyes with the dashing student-activist Marius and they fall instantly in love. This development is heartbreaking to Éponine, who harbors feelings for the blind and almost cruelly oblivious young insurgent. As civil war breaks out in the streets, Valjean is discovered by Javert, Marius and Cosette’s love is threatened before it can even begin, and many will fall in pursuit of equality.
When the dust settles and the blood of the martyrs has watered the meadows of France, Valjean reflects on his remarkable life and comes fully clean with Cosette about his past. Strung along this sweeping story are some of the finest songs in the musical theater repertoire including Valjean’s heartfelt, “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home”; Fantine’s sorrowful “I Dreamed a Dream” (shot in devastating close-up with no cuts, a remarkable three minutes that may just deliver Hathaway an Oscar); Javert’s rigid “Stars”; Éponine’s soulful “On My Own”; and a dozen ensemble pieces ranging from comic (the Thénardiers’ bombastic “Master of the House”) and romantic (Marius and Cosette’s sweet “A Heart Full of Love”) to rousing (the revolutionary hymn “Do You Hear the People Sing?”) and positively bone-rattling (the preeminent “One Day More”). The movie presents nearly all of the music from the show (there are a few minor omissions), rare in musical adaptations these days, and while they reorder some of the songs, it works in service of the film, which is freed from the emotional requirements that an intermission dictates.
This is a movie in which everyone is singing all the time (Les Misérables is essentially an opera, in fact, “Bring Him Home” is clearly inspired by the “Humming Chorus” in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly [Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, the creaters of the musical would collaborate again on Miss Saigon, directly based on Butterfly]) and so the value of the performances has to be at least in part tied to their vocal quality. Jackman is the standout and is equal to the heavy task of carrying the movie. Hathaway and Barks are excellent, and Seyfried is more than adequate. I’m no admirer of Redmayne’s reedy thin tenor and he has no presence, while Crowe, whose voice is the worst of the bunch, uses his considerable occupancy to make up for his vocal shortcomings (its still a shame, however, as Javert has many of the best numbers, which Crowe isn’t up to). The singing being shown in close-up punches up the impact but accounts for some of the movie’s deficiencies. The closeness of the camera makes it far too tempting for the performers to overdo it, whispering or emoting through the music without actually singing it, missing completely that the music naturally adds the emotion if they trust it. This produces a frustrating amount of sing-talking, making it feel like the actors aren’t fully committed to the idea of real people in real costumes in real locations singing everything they say.
There are other times in which the artifice of the stage fits uneasily into the photo-realism of the screen. The ersatz boards can withstand a scene like the one in which Valjean recklessly promises Fantine to take care of Cosette just minutes after announcing to the authorities that he is the fugitive they’ve been looking for (he’s actually at Fantine’s hospital bed waiting for Javert to come and arrest him—how does he think he can fulfill that promise? He must have read the script). Also, the revolutionary’s barricade, a coup in the theater, isn’t prepared for the factual dimensions afforded by a movie camera, and its underwhelming size and idiotically vulnerable placement undermines the impact of what happens there and brings into question the competency of rebels. The ability to create realistic violence is a double-edged sword in Hooper’s hands, making the toil of the chain gang and the aftermath of the rebellion chilling but rendering the death of Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone), an Artful Dodger-esque boy revolutionary, exploitative and distasteful (Javert, thanks to an unnecessary sound effect, also meets an ignoble end). Hooper’s command of how to best render the material cinematically is not complete.
The best movies based on stage musicals remain those that can bridge the gap between cinema and stagecraft such as Cabaret (1972) and My Fair Lady (1964) (this goes for operas as well, where Powell‘s and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann  and Bergman’s The Magic Flute  pace the field). Les Misérables isn’t on that level, but it’s more than worthy of the second tier where Chicago (2002) and Guys and Dolls (1955) (or Rosi’s Carmen  in the opera world) reside: flawlessly mounted productions where much of the interest comes from watching famous people sing familiar songs. Les Misérables has a silver bullet, however; it’s got the best music and when the movie gets out of its way and lets that shine, as with “I Dreamed a Dream” or the emotional finale (to which Hooper adds some nice touches), the movie shines with it.