There are moments early in Les Miserables when viewers may feel like theyre about to witness a bona-fide disasterpiece, one of those spectacular miscalculations that can be almost as entertaining almost as a superbly executed work of audacious ambition and scope.
For better or for worse, though, this adaptation of the Broadway musical fits neither description, largely because it lives in that kinda-sorta, okay-not-great place for which words like better and worse fall short.
Less a fully realized film than a strung-together series of showstoppers, diva moments and production numbers, Les Mis contains multitudes not only in the form of a huge cast but in its own contradictions.
But, theres plenty to cheer in Les Mis, not the least of which is the presence of some genuinely astonishing breakout performances. Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) delivers the most moving and memorable performance in the film as the young firebrand Marius who, along with his fellow students, is caught up in Frances political upheavals in the 19th century.
Based on Victor Hugos novel, Les Miserables juxtaposes Marius fight for political justice with the more personal struggle of Jean Valjean, whom we meet in the films opening scene as an enslaved prisoner, played by an unrecognizably emaciated Hugh Jackman.
We also meet Valjeans nemesis, Javert (Russell Crowe), the vengeful police inspector who, when Valjean breaks parole, will pursue him obsessively, even when the former convict becomes a respectable businessman and mayor.
Its during these introductory sequences that Les Miserables is at its most wobbly, with Hooper editing frantically between and within scenes. Once he calms down he finds the films rhythm, which, at its most gratifying, finds Hooper simply resting the camera on individual singers as they deliver the tunes the shows fans came to hear.
Its at just such a moment when Redmayne swings from the rafters, singing the mournful ballad Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, an agonizing tribute to his fallen brothers.
The centerpiece of a movie composed entirely of centerpieces belongs to Anne Hathaway, as the tragic heroine Fantine. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream delivered in shattering close-up to accentuate her haggard face, violently shorn hair and angular, half-starved body is a melodramatic tour de force of vocal and physical expression.
Hooper made the commendable decision to have the cast perform the score live rather than lip-synch to pre-recorded music, which lends Les Miserables a welcome air of spontaneity and excitement.
There are times when Hathaways and Jackmans voices sound brassy and labored. Crowe, however, possesses the mellow, earthy tones of a crooner.