In 1862, when Victor Hugo’s masterpiece was published, the term “les misérables” was meant to represent society’s impoverished underdogs. They were outcasts and rebels who were rejecting society’s rejection of them. But ever since 1985 when the English-language musical version began devouring the world, nobody says “Misérables.” Now it’s just “Les Miz,” and that evokes an altogether different state of despair. The miz don’t need food, shelter, or clothing — there are catering and production crews for those. They need good lighting, a stirring arrangement, and an ecstatic audience. Miz is a condition of abject showmanship. It’s walking to downstage and belting out your torment. It’s still the same human condition that took up 1,200 pages in Hugo but with razzmatazz.
What’s great about the first half of Tom Hooper’s gigantic film of the musical is the balance it strikes between the misérable and the miz. Hooper graduates from the tasteful and triumphant modesties of “The King’s Speech” to a musical that for a generation of people was a kind of first kiss. In the opening scene, which is set in 1815, two decades after the French Revolution, row upon row of chain-gang prisoners are pulling an enormous ship. The camera swoops to and fro, taking all the gaunt, hairy, and chewed-up faces as they bellow their work song (“Look down! Look down!”), the water pouring out of their mouths as they sing. Despite some digital-production assistance, this isn’t a pantomime of drudgery. It feels like the real thing.
Hooper has decided that realism is the way to go with “Les Misérables.” The singing has all been done on the spot. So if, after he’s been given his leave, prisoner 24601 — also known as Jean Valjean and now permanently consecrated in the movie-musical firmament as Hugh Jackman — sounds winded as he muscles out a song in rags and clogs amid freezing temperatures at vertiginous altitudes, he is. This might be the way to capture the noble suffering in Hugo’s novel: more suffering.
A series of benevolent events change Valjean’s fortunes. He’s broken his parole (the original crime was stealing bread), changed his name, and become a successful industrialist. A crisis of conscience forces him to give himself up and spend the rest of his life on the run from the beefy monomaniacal inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) but not without keeping a vow made to one of Valjean’s employees, the virtuous but doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway), to find her daughter, Cosette, and give her a good life. That’s the first 65 minutes or so of the movie, and once they’re over, the action skips ahead to 1832 and things become repetitive and shallow. Some of this has to do with Hugo’s book, whose assorted digressions in the second half are almost ruinous. But Hugo was a lyrical idealist who could pull you along with the sweep of moral principle.
Neither the original French musical (by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel) nor the English adaptation (by Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn, and John Caird) cares much about the greater social good. The hard decay and demise in the the first third disappear, truculence and romance take over, and frankly, the quality of the songcraft withers. This is a sung-through musical, and by the time the student revolt occupies the drama, you always get the sinking feeling that the show is just spinning its wheels until the next great number. Hooper inherits the musical’s problems and runs out of creative solutions. The mix of vastness and intimacy, long shots and close-ups that served the film so well in the early going, doesn’t work as well here. It’s committed to comparative trivialities: the student revolt and the would-be anarchist and aristocrat, Marius (Eddie Redmayne,) who falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and breaks the heart of his pal Éponine (Samantha Barks). At this point, we’ve already experienced the emotional payoff of Hooper’s strategy of filming the solo numbers in long takes as portraits and are still mourning for Hathaway, who during “I Dreamed a Dream” shatters apart an inch away from the camera. That moment is the implosive equivalent of the house Jennifer Hudson brought down in “Dreamgirls.”
Redmayne, Seyfried, and Barks, who’s making her movie debut, are all fine. Aaron Tveit is even better as the student revolt’s leader. But they don’t have songs that give you much to feel — well, Barks does — and a lot of people have started singling her out. But for me, her pretty singing was upstaged by her costume: How does she manage to do anything with her belt that tight? The musical, not unlike the book, becomes guilty of Marius’s privileged sense of romance, and Redmayne spends another movie looking as if he’s been touched for the very first time.
What makes Jackman such an astonishment is that he’s not afraid to show you all the work. The live singing elevates the sense of hardship. Jackman’s a star whose charisma the movies have wasted but musical theater and award shows have kept in business. Hooper often puts the camera up close to Jackman, looking down upon him. What the actor reveals as he spits and weeps and strains to perform, say, “What Have I Done?” or “Who Am I?” is a kind of reverse showmanship. The charisma’s been stripped to the bone, and it’s a thrilling confirmation of the other kind of star Jackman is. Come the second half, he’s just as good, but there’s nowhere for all the anguish to go. His hair’s gone big. He’s breeches and suspenders. It’s like watching “Little House on the Prairie”-era Michael Landon tackle a supermusical.
After 2½ hours, the movie’s become a bowl of trail mix — you’re picking out the nuts you don’t like and hoping the next bite doesn’t contain any craisins. All the carefully crafted misérables turns into a pile of miz. Through it all the person who breaks your heart in scene after scene is Crowe. Not because he’s good. It’s quite the opposite problem. Again, this is a sung-through musical, which means he might speak two words the entire film. He doesn’t sing here so much as carry tunes — across the desert, in his bare feet. This strong virile actor is giving the songs everything he has yet still sounds like one of the orphans in “Oliver.” The entire performance is like a car that won’t turn over. His bravery’s commendable. But there’s nothing miz about him, just misérable.