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Movie review: Actors face the music in 'Les Misérables'

Published December 27, 2012 12:58 pm

Review • Too many close-ups drain musical of its energy.
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Do you hear the people sing? Director Tom Hooper is driven to make audiences see the people sing, sticking the camera right in their faces, as they emote their hearts out in this star-studded musical "Les Misérables."

Hooper, in his first film since winning the Oscar for "The King's Speech," goes for broke with this lush movie adaptation of the much-beloved Broadway musical — but not all of his gambles pay off in a production that's more flash than substance.

For those few who haven't seen the musical, or watched the countless non-singing versions of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel (or, God forbid, read the thing), first we must meet our hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), paroled from prison in 1815 after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. His captor, the rigid lawman Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), reminds him that he's a marked man, a dangerous parolee, who must report to the government for the rest of his life. Valjean resorts to stealing from a church to survive, and a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the original Broadway and West End productions) allows him to take the silver if he vows to use the proceeds to live a virtuous life.

A changed Valjean assumes a new identity, and eight years later is a prosperous factory owner. But two events — Javert's reappearance, and the death of a factory worker, the tragic Fantine (Anne Hathaway) — force Valjean to go into hiding again, this time taking Fantine's daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) into his protection. Nine more years later, Valjean returns to Paris with the now-teen Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a leader in a revolt against the French government who is fighting on the barricades.

The plot, though, is secondary to the grandeur of Claude-Michel Schönberg's music and the words of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (who wrote the original French lyrics) and Herbert Kretzmer (who wrote the English libretto). If audiences aren't already humming the anthemic "Do You Hear the People Sing?" along with Marius and his fellow rebels, or swooning to Fantine's heart-wrenching show-stopper "I Dreamed a Dream" or the mournful love ballad "On My Own" — sung by the urchin Eponine (Samantha Barks) over her unrequited love for Marius — they will before the credits roll.

Hooper's direction only has two settings, wide-open shots of the grandeur and intrusive in-your-face close-ups of the lead characters singing. And they are indeed singing; as the movie's publicity machine points out at every opportunity, the actors sang their parts live on the set (rather than the standard practice of pre-recording their tracks in a studio and lip-synching to them while filming). That tactic helps concentrate the emotion in some scenes, particularly in Hathaway's astonishing single-take performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." But at other times, such as with Crowe's strained growl, it brings out the weakness of the actor's voice.

Screenwriter William Nicholson has the thankless job of corralling the libretto into a screenplay, and he manages to give the major characters their moments. Alas, that sometimes means hanging out with characters who could have been skipped, namely the comic-relief innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who look after and abuse the young Cosette.

Nicholson can't overcome the plot's central problem of never explaining what the young rebels on the barricades are fighting for or who they're fighting against.

This "Les Misérables" will satisfy the musical's rabid fanbase, the people who know the show by heart and will line up for one more day of hearing "One Day More." The rest of us will stay resolutely on the other side of the barricades, wondering what all the fuss is about.


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'Les Misérables'

The legendary musical finally arrives on movie screens, with the actors' faces filling the frame far too often.

Where • Theaters everywhere.

When • Opens Tuesday, Dec. 25.

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

Running time • 157 minutes. —

Megaplex Theatres scoring big with 'Les Miz'

Utahns do love them some "Les Miz."

The movie version of the hit musical "Les Mis­érables" is likely to produce a Christmas that's "off the charts" at the Utah-based Megaplex Theatres chain, according to company officials.

"This is shaping up to be one of the busiest Christmas days we've had at the theaters in years," said Blake Andersen, senior vice president for Megaplex Theatres.

The chain estimates that five Megaplex locations will take spots in the Top 20 theaters nationwide for advance ticket sales. Most theaters will add more showtimes to accommodate demand, Andersen said.