Times Performing Arts Critic
Is there anything Hugh Jackman cannot do? Comic book superhero (Wolverine in the X-Men movies), romcom heartthrob (Kate & Leopold), musical theater leading man (Curly in Oklahoma!), raconteur (hosting the Tony and Oscar awards shows).
Jackman does indeed seem able to do it all in show business, and now he has perhaps his greatest triumph as Jean Valjean, the famous prisoner No. 24601 in the movie version of Les Misérables, the wildly popular musical based on the sprawling Victor Hugo novel set in revolutionary early 19th century France.
Valjean is something of a Christ figure on the "never ending road to Calvary," and Jackman brings a suitable gravity to the role, and he has the vocal chops to bring off soaring pop-operatic arias like Who Am I? and Bring Him Home. In his nuanced performance, the relationships between Valjean and the women in his life, the prostitute Fantine and her daughter, Cosette, have a warmth and feeling that is more evident in the movie than on stage.
Russell Crowe will not be to everybody's taste as Javert, the relentless pursuer of Valjean. Crowe is barely adequate as a singer — he almost talks parts of Javert's stirring Stars, which is swimmingly filmed on a parapet high above the rooftops of Paris — but the sense of doubt and vulnerability he brings to the police inspector is effective.
Like the stage musical, the movie is virtually all sung, with little spoken dialogue, and it closely follows the original score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil. There is one new song, Suddenly, a tender lullaby that Valjean sings to young Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
Directed by Tom Hooper, the production was distinguished by having vocals done live during filming, rather than being prerecorded and having the actors lip-synch on the set. This may have made a difference in cultivating the intimacy of some performances. In a high point of the picture, I Dreamed a Dream, the dying Fantine's lament, is given a nakedly emotional reading by Anne Hathaway, in a closeup with her brunette locks chopped off, rather than the bravura treatment fans are accustomed to. The live recording may also have exposed flaws, such as Crowe's pitch problems in Stars.
In a comic coup, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter team as the larcenous innkeepers, the husband and wife Thenardiers. Reprising to some extent their turns in the screen version of the musical Sweeney Todd, their performances are grotesquely, delightfully over the top, though Master of the House falls strangely flat. Not so the horrifically realistic scene in which Cohen's Thenardier pops up in the sludge as Valjean drags Marius through the Paris sewer.
The all-star cast includes Amanda Seyfried, who reinforces her reputation as a gifted musical performer (she was Sophie in the Mamma Mia! movie) as the grown-up Cosette. Her beau, the student revolutionary Marius, is well sung by Eddie Redmayne, but his acting is self-indulgent.
Daniel Huddlestone is the endearing street urchin Gavroche; hunky Aaron Tveit is Enjolras, leader on the barricade of the 1832 Paris student uprising; and Samantha Barks, as downtrodden Eponine, in unrequited love with Marius, sings a moving On My Own as she walks cobblestone streets in the rain.
In a nice touch, Colm Wilkinson, who originated Valjean in the West End and on Broadway, plays the monsignor who forgives Jackman's desperate parolee for stealing some silver and sets him on the path of redemption.
For people who have loved Les Miz on stage — and that is a huge audience, given its long-running success — the movie is a can't-miss event, though some will find it overly bleak (the weather always seems to be cold and damp) and too long. It must also be acknowledged that nothing matches seeing and hearing the musical live or, for bookworms, actually reading the Hugo tome, all 1,232 pages of it in the new paperback with young Cosette on the cover.
In musical theater, a song like Stars or the counterpoint of One Day More delivers an exhilarating sensation that feels as if you are being lifted from your seat. But the impact onscreen is more abstract, less visceral. Movies are literal, while theater leaves room for the imagination, allowing everyone to have their own personal Les Misérables.
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.