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Les Miserables

Whatever you think of Les Miserables, you have to respect director Tom Hooper’s guts. Following up his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech with an assignment to direct one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, he decided to go experimental. Instead of recording the songs first and having the actors lip-sync to them on camera, he recorded all of the songs live. Not only that, but filming largely with hand-held cameras, he captured many of the songs in a single take. (The actors performed accompanied by a live piano player who followed their leads; the orchestral arrangements were recorded to match the vocals.)

This was a daring approach because the film of Les Mis, as its millions of fans know it, is not the kind of thing producers were likely to want to mess with. The stage production, which debuted nearly 30 years ago, is rivaled only by Cats and The Phantom of the Opera in worldwide popularity. Most filmmakers would have messed with it as little as possible, concentrating on putting the players into elaborate recreations of early 19th-century France. Hooper sometimes seems to be going in just the opposite direction: Instead of opening it up, he closes in, concentrating on his performers with so many tight closeups that the effect is like watching the stage show with opera glasses.

It’s an approach that is likely to appeal to those who are already fans of the show (several of whom accompanied me to the screening and pronounced themselves happy with the result) than those coming to it for the first time. Arguably Hooper might have been better off casting performers from the most recent West End revival in the lead roles instead of putting them in bit parts. Given the need for marquee value stars, the film doesn’t do badly. As the long-suffering Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman (who was a star of the musical stage before he came to Hollywood) sings at the high end of his range with a bit too much vibrato. Just the opposite is non-singer Russell Crowe as the relentless Inspector Javert, with a stolid baritone that reminded me of Scott Walker. (I kept expecting him to threaten Valjean with a chorus of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.”) But these are weaknesses that are compensated for by the actors’ other skills in the roles.

The muscular musical score is carried more ably by the rest of the cast, especially Samantha Barks as Éponine, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius. The most memorable number, though, is Anne Hathaway’s wrenching one-take performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which gives the film a peak in the first act that the rest of it never quite rises to again.

Watch the trailer for Les Misérables

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