Movie review: 'Les Miz' soars on screen, Anne Hathaway steals the show
December 25, 2012 3:00 PM
Russell Crowe in "Les Miserables."
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables."
By Barbara Vancheri Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Squeezing into the catsuit for "The Dark Knight Rises" was nothing compared with what Anne Hathaway faced for "Les Miserables," the movie that could easily earn her a supporting actress Oscar.
She not only sings "live" -- as the camera is rolling -- but she does it as her character is crying, starving, having her luxuriant hair razored off, being forced into prostitution and degradation and, later, dying.
PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
And she never misses a beat or a note or the profound, naked emotions of Fantine, a factory worker in 19th-century France who is literally driven into the streets when co-workers discover she has an illegitimate child. Ms. Hathaway's renditions of "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Come to Me" are among the highlights of the movie version of the stage musical opening in theaters today.
It's been 27 years since "Les Miz" premiered in London and, according to the book "Show Time," Variety called it too diffuse and opera-like, which "suggests mixed word of mouth and public acceptance problems."
The only problem for the public in the ensuing years might have been scoring or affording tickets in the West End, on Broadway and for touring companies regularly stopping at venues such as the Benedum Center (where it will return Jan. 15-27). The world's longest running musical has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries.
Now, Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech," has assembled an all-star cast -- led by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Ms. Hathaway -- and opened up the stage production for the big screen.
That means you feel as if you're watching a movie, not simply a musical with cameras pointing at the stage. For instance, we see Mr. Jackman (haggard, soaked, in waist-high water and singing) as part of a chain gang hauling a ship into a dock or trudging across a mountaintop or lugging an injured man through the sewers.
"Les Miz," inspired by Victor Hugo's novel, is a story with timeless themes of crime (or acts of decency) and punishment, sacrifice, shattered dreams, avarice, the ravages of poverty, forgiveness, love requited and unrequited, rebellion and redemption, in this world or the next.
The story opens in 1815 as prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean (Mr. Jackman), is about to be released on parole after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to save a starving child. This is not the last he will see of the righteous, obsessed police inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe), who stands guard over the chain gang.
Valjean is unshackled but an outcast, sheltered only by a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean in London and on Broadway). The man of God rescues him a second time when the parolee is caught with purloined silver. Valjean uses that to start over and, eight years later, he is living as a mayor and factory owner.
Fantine (Ms. Hathaway) is booted from that factory after the other women discover she has a secret child, in the care of unscrupulous innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen).
Jean Valjean eventually assumes care of that girl, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and, then, Amanda Seyfried), and when the story jumps ahead to 1832 Paris, unrest turns into a doomed insurrection. The principals are given one last opportunity to dispense justice, mercy, love, truth and comfort before the curtain comes down or, in this case, the credits rise up.
The vocal standouts are Ms. Hathaway; Mr. Jackman, a Tony Award winner who is the entertainment equivalent of a five-tool player in baseball; and, as student rebels, Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit. Ms. Bonham Carter and Mr. Baron Cohen seem hired for comic relief and box-office appeal rather than their voices.
Mr. Crowe is uneven, at best, strongest in the lower registers where he can sing more forcefully, tentative on some of the high notes and appearing self-conscious, like someone who dances in public but is always silently counting the steps. He wears his Javert, admittedly a rigid character, like a straitjacket.
I went into "Les Miz" with visions of the top 10 list of 2012 dancing in my head and came out convinced I had seen a very good -- if long, at 160 minutes -- movie. But it never felt as stirring as watching the production on stage, which I last saw in January 2005 at the Benedum.
Back then, drama critic Christopher Rawson called it a "whopping good story, an epic pop opera that drives along on a flood of understandable, richly schmaltzy music." That all still holds true, and revisiting the songs starts them looping through your brain once more.
As the song title asks, "Do You Hear the People Sing?" And the answer is yes.