A long time in the making, the film version of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel set in early 19th-century France reaches movie theatres in a wave of acclaim for its cast, performing the songs live on camera, and for its faithfulness to the original stage play. Yet, Tom Hooper's follow-up to The King's Speech falls flat in its face precisely due to that faultless, faithful presentation of below-par material.

     Extraordinarily dull in its overblown, non-stop, in-your-face attempt at epic-ness, Les Misérables basically follows all of the play's beats without really adding anything of its own, other than replacing the stage's necessary stylization with a more traditionally British period-realist (though still stylized) production design. But that more realistic framework demands a less rushed, more evenly-paced rhythm that is never even in play here: Les Misérables is essentially an all-sung operetta with non-existant respite, eventually becoming numbing over an almost three-hour length.

     Mr. Hooper knows precisely what the material demands - and also knows it most clearly does not demand subtlety or elegance, shooting it with the frenzied, jagged hurry of an action movie, all frantic cuts and handheld racing camera. Everything is urgent (surprisingly so for a plot that covers nearly three decades), while the score is so uninspired and by-the-numbers that everything meshes eventually into a non-stop sludge of forgettable music and over-emphatic lyrics, further burdened by a libretto that reduces Victor Hugo's tome to a central narrative core of high-end, basic soap opera, focusing on ex-con Jean Valjean's (Hugh Jackman) attempts at forging a new life while evading the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), and then on his god-daughter Cosette's (Amanda Seyfried) puppy romance with dashing idealist Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

     All fine and dandy - musical conventions may demand such whittling down for convenience - but once blown back up into film, such concentration becomes a hindrance rather than help. There is but one true narrative arc in the whole film, Valjean's, with all other characters reduced to walk-ins and walk-outs as needed to move the plot forward - such as Mr. Crowe's despondent, bullying Javert, Anne Hathaway's dejected martyr Fantine, or Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen's weaselly innkeepers Thénardiers as comic relief. Their presences are limited to a couple of scenes of which Ms. Hathaway's showstopping "I Dreamed a Dream", smartly shot as a one-take performance, is the most high-profile one and makes her an instant shoo-in for Oscar glory.

     But in so reducing the plot, the musical also drowns the novel's sociological background - something that might even be seen as relevant in our day and age - and ensemble nature into an all-star extravaganza that neither Mr. Hooper's understanding of the requirements to turn it into a successful film nor a game cast manage to overtake. As it pummels the viewer into submission to its ostensive tear-duct manipulation presented with stiff-upper-lip British professionalism, Les Misérables sheds slowly whatever interest it might have until all that remains is the overblown, pompous carcass of a musical that totally fails to bring anything even remotely new to the continuous questioning of the genre's viability in this day-and-age. It is a purely cynical commercial operation to extend the reach of a pop-culture phenomenon that, as so many of these phenomenons, has become unavoidable though not necessarily unmissable.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Isabelle Allen, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen

Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Hubert Kretzmer, from the stage musical with lyrics by Mr. Boublil and Mr. Kretzmer, music by Mr. Schönberg, libretto by Mr. Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and James Fenton and additional work by Trevor Nunn and Dan Caird, Les Misérables, based on the eponymous novel by Victor Hugo
Cinematography: Danny Cohen (colour, digital intermediate by Company 3, processing by Technicolor)
Lyrics: Mr. Kretzmer, from the original French lyrics by Mr. Boublil
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Music director: Stephen Brooker
Additional music: Anne Dudley
Designer: Eve Stewart
Costumes: Paco Delgado
Editors: Melanie Ann Oliver, Chris Dickens
Choreography: Liam Steel
Visual effects: Richard Bain
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh (Universal Pictures, Working Title Films and Camack International in association with Relativity Media and Dentsu)
USA/United Kingdom/Japan, 2012, 158 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), December 28th 2012


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