Love triangles, epic feuds and comic relief aside, Les Miserables is a strange choice for a successful musical in some ways. Its final message, for example, is that life is a bit rubbish, what with all the poverty and running to escape your past and having your political convictions literally trampled over, but it's alright because you'll die soon. In fact, many of the characters pray - rather tunefully, in fact - for death at various points - and two-thirds of the way through Tom Hooper's cinematic adaptation, I was adding my voice to their chorus.
It's not that the film is bad - the cinematography is superb, the ensemble cast terrific and the score packs as much of a punch on film as it does live. But Les Miserables rests on its two leads, and neither Hugh Jackman's Valjean or Russell Crowe's Javert are up to scratch.
Crowe is all bluster and bombast, concentrating so hard on his singing that he completely forgets he's supposed to be acting as well. To be fair, he gives it his all - and what he lacks in tune he makes up for in volume. Unfortunately, even next to Jackman not at his best, he's not a trained musical theatre singer, and it shows. The few moments when he speaks, particularly at the barricades and then later in the aftermath, show a glimmer of the Javert he could have been but it's largely a lot of effort for very little emotional impact.
Jackman has a good voice, but spends the film doing an impression of Colm Wilkinson's definitive performance, whilst Wilkinson himself as the bishop who saves both Valjean's life and his soul is well-cast but a reminder of how good Jackman isn't.
Luckily the film is worth watching for excellent actors in meaty minor roles, although Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen seem to be having such a good time that they appear to have wandered into the wrong film. Aaron Tveit, who deservedly won acclaim in the Pultizer-winning Next to Normal, is a passionate, charismatic Enjrolas whose revolutionary fervour sends a shiver down the spine, and Samantha Barks as a feisty Éponine is so likeable that it's perplexing to see Marius sideline her for Amanda Seyfried's drip of a Cosette.
But the film belongs to Anne Hathaway's tormented Fantine, whose decline from factory worker/secret mother to prostitute is heartbreaking. Hathaway's weight loss has been picked over enough elsewhere, but her decision to go for gaunt instead of gamine is the final touch on a sterling performance that doesn't sugarcoat Fantine's degradation.
Hooper's film has all the requisite Les Mis moments, but it is saved from becoming maudlin by his warts-and-all approach. The opening sequence with the slaves labouring under Javert's forbidding gaze is almost painful to watch, the prostitutes that Fantine falls in with can't entirely hide their bruises with powder and paint, and when Valjean drags Marius to safety through the sewers, the muck and grime are revolting enough that I expected a shock twist where he died of septicemia. The scenery is perfect - Paris has never looked more haunting or more mournful - and even the smallest detail is so obviously the product of a labour of love that it's like watching a masterclass in making a very good period drama.
As a musical, it doesn't work as well as it should. As a film, it's very close to brilliant. Go into it expecting good Hollywood actors and not Broadway-levels of talent and you'll be impressed.
About the Author
Kaite Welsh is an author and freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times Higher, Diva magazine and elsewhere. She is an