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Magic of Les Misérables lost in translation from stage to screen

Les Miserables movie
Les Miserables shines brightest when Anne Hathaway is one screen. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures
Les Miserables
Les Miserables opens in theaters on Christmas Day. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures

Since the dawn of the 21st century, the movie musical has been slowly but surely been making a comeback. The relative failures of films like A Chorus Line and Little Shop of Horrors in the ’80s led studios to shy away from them. In the ’90s, if you saw a musical on screen, it was most likely in the form of a Disney film.

But 2001’s Moulin Rouge kick-started a revolution, and since then rarely has a year gone by without one high-profile Broadway musical or another making its way to the big screen. The latest is arguably the biggest musical to hit the stage in the last 30 years, Les Misérables.

If you didn’t already know, the musical is essentially the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned in 19th century France for stealing a loaf of bread. He’s released early on in the story, but he is continuously hounded by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) for years.

 Suffice it to say that the title, which translates to “poor wretches,” applies to almost everyone in the film.

Valjean, a good man at heart, has many different things happen to him, but most of them revolve around a decision he makes when he’s the owner of a factory. One of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), falls on hard times — an understatement — and Valjean agrees to care for her daughter, Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried).

With Javert hot on his trail and Cosette to look after, Valjean hardly ever has a moment to rest, and Cosette’s blossoming eventually leads Valjean to become entangled with revolutionaries looking to stage an uprising in Paris.

Of course, that synopsis barely touches on everything going on in the plot. It’s the kind of story where one action can have multiple effects, to the point where you almost need a chart to keep up with them all. Suffice it to say that the title, which translates to “poor wretches,” applies to almost everyone in the film.

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) obviously had a ton of ambition with the project. One of the most notable aspects is the epic look of the film. The scope of various scenes, especially the opening and ones during the uprising, rivals that of any big action movie. Conversely, though, smaller scenes still retain their intimacy, so the film never feels too big to handle.

Another ambitious element that’s been trumpeted is Hooper having the actors sing their lines live on set, as opposed to pre-recording them and lip-synching during scenes. With actors free to make different choices in how they sing particular lines, the practice does seem to yield some particularly inspiring renditions, especially Hathaway’s version of the musical’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream.”

 Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway give over their bodies and souls to their respective roles.

What the film is missing is coherence, both in a story sense and from a few of the songs. The film is strongest up until Valjean starts taking care of Cosette. From that point, it’s a mishmash of elements that feels like it’s supposed to be inspiring but never quite reaches that level.

The incoherent singing is often the result of call-and-response-style singing where different characters overlap each other. Those songs divide your attention so much that it’s hard to understand a single word.

Fortunately, that’s not the case for most of the film, which is good because 99 percent of the film’s dialogue is sung. There are some truly impressive performances, especially Jackman and Hathaway. Both actors seem to give over their bodies and souls to their respective roles; anytime either one is on screen is when the movie shines the brightest.

Others are not so successful. Crowe does his level best, but his voice pales in comparison to almost everyone else’s. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are great as comic relief, but their Cockney voices — perhaps remnants of their roles in Sweeney Todd — are glaring, because they’re supposed to be playing French characters.

Despite the best efforts of Hooper and some of the cast, the film version of Les Misérables falls a bit flat. Diehard fans may slobber at the chance at seeing their favorite numbers performed on screen, but most of the passion is lost in translation from stage to screen.

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