A confession: Despite my love of music, I don't believe I have ever sat through an entire musical without either falling asleep or escaping at intermission. Enter Les Miserables, musical toast of the cinema season and credible contender for a good handful of Academy Awards come February. And yes, I stayed in my seat for the duration.
Frankly, I'd have predicted otherwise. I did abscond during intermission when first I saw the production mounted in London in 1985, though I was suitably impressed by the scale of the Cameron Mackintosh production and the several hummable melodies. But the whole affair seemed mawkish and predictable, though in retrospect, its triumphal story arc honors the original author, Victor Hugo, who called the work "a progress from evil to good, from falsehood to truth."
The plot reflects the Victorian era that also produced Charles Dickens, with its street-level heroes and celebration of underdog spirit. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is the protagonist, a bread thief who paid with two decades of his freedom for trying to feed his family during hard times. He is pursued almost irrationally by a bad lieutenant, Javert (Russell Crowe), who makes life hell on Valjean and his charges, an unwed mother (Anne Hathaway) and her young daughter.
Much ado has been made of the fact that director Tom Hooper recorded the sung vocals live on set instead of having his actors lip-synch to performances perfected in the recording studio. The result? Heartful renditions of songs that might have left one cold if overly-polished and fixed in the mix. Anne Hathaway especially catches fire during the show's signature number, "I Dreamed a Dream," shedding copious tears while wringing all of the emotion possible from the words. Not a dry eye in the house, including my own (though I do cry at Super Bowl endings too).
Both Hathaway and Jackman are nominated for Oscars for their inspired performances, though the latter is particularly impressive both as an actor and singer. Crowe has been much criticized for his meager musical talents, but I found him passable, and the need for a movie star in that crucial role is a lesson in harsh Hollywood economic reality. These productions ain't cheap to mount ($61 million in this case, substantial though not enormous), so all the high-wattage names are enlisted to float the ship.
Hooper was wise to ring in Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as proprietors of a seedy inn, adding a note of humor and whimsy to a plot dominated by death, destitution and dashed dreams. I predict Ms. Hathaway might add an Oscar to her mantel next to the Golden Globe, though here's hoping she ditches the fake surprised bit that earned her so much Twitter-Bitterness recently. A little sincerity goes a long way, A.H…..