I adore the Schönberg-Boublil musical based on Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables. I've seen multiple touring productions, and I've wept to "A Little Fall of Rain" more times than I can count. I'm pretty sure the theatrical production is impossible to turn into an equally powerful film. If there were a way to accomplish that task, Tom Hooper's new movie isn't it.
That much is clear from the opening shot, which sweeps down from the sky, into the French shipyards, circa 1815. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is working off his 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). "This is going to be a movie, not some stage-bound adaptation of a play," Hooper suggests, proving he doesn't understand Les Mis at all.
Les Mis, fundamentally, is opera: emotions writ large, combined with stagecraft, meant to be absorbed while taking in the entirety of the scene. There are moments when Hooper shows he understands how to bring emotion to the surface. It's there when Anne Hathaway - as Fantine, the single mother who turns to prostitution to support her child, Cosette - tears into her show-stopping aria "I Dreamed a Dream," a single-take performance whose focused intensity is riveting. It's also present in another single-take song: "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," which the young soldier Marius (Eddie Redmayne) sings to lament fallen friends.
But there's no similar way to handle scenes in which a single voice isn't the center of attention. "A Heart Full of Love" - a crucial showcase in the romantic triangle involving Marius, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Éponine (Samantha Barks), the girl who loves Marius unrequitedly - never places all three performers in the same shot, turning the song into series of close-up snippets with no sense of the connections that will change the characters' fate. The same is true for the big choral numbers, which lose a sense of scope through piecemeal editing.
A different problem plagues Crowe's Javert, whose insistence that a criminal cannot be rehabilitated provides the story's central conflict. It's not that Crowe's voice isn't up to the task; it's that he doesn't understand how to act musical theater of this kind. He's Method-acting Javert to death when he should be conveying intensity by commanding a stage.
Even when Les Mis plays to the balcony, it feels out of its element. Those familiar with the stage production will recall the massive turntable and the barricade constructed in the streets of Paris by young protesters, including Marius and his friends. There's no way to duplicate this impressive spectacle in cinematic form, not when you can simply cut to the next scene.