I freely admit that I approached this film with a sinking feeling, but I also came to it with an open mind. If it was as good as many claim, I would have been thrilled to be wrong. Sadly, I was right, except in one respect. It is even worse than I feared.
The plot of the book is enormous, lengthy and interminable. The film's narrative slightly less so, but still sprawling – at over two and a half hours. In 1815 Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict who is freed after 19 years, and sets off to find work, but no one will have him because of his criminal record. He steals silver from a priest who helps him, but the priest doesn't press charges, and Valjean becomes a good, honest and successful businessman under new name. But his policeman/nemesis Javert (Russell Crowe) arrives in the town where Valjean lives, and becomes suspicious of him. One of Valjean's workers Fantine (Anne Hathaway) falls on hard times, and dies, though not before singing at great length about a dream she had, which tragically, turned out to be a dream. Valjean looks after her daughter Cosette, who as a grown woman, falls for a student radical Marius (Eddie Redmayne). The other main characters are a pair of comic villains (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). But the core of the book (and film) is Javert's relentless pursuit of Valjean.
So that's the epic saga, which has been filmed many times before, most recently with Geoffrey Rush and Liam Neeson. But this film is based on a musical version which has been watched around the world by millions of people, and so the characters sing. All the time. Well, nearly. My question is, why do they sing? Yes, I know it's a musical, but still, what does anyone gain from all the singing? 1. The songs are not very good. Actually, they're atrocious. 2. The actors don't sing very well. Not actually badly, but not so as you'd hire them for their singing skills. 3. Singing is a non-relational activity. When one character sings, the whole film stops, because most of the time they're singing at the audience, like an aria in an opera. It's the opposite of dialogic, and it makes the film static. 4. The lyrics are phenomenally banal, complete with rhyming couplets. I had never heard any of the songs before, but I knew the rhyme of every line before it arrived. That obvious.
We are told that the actors sang live during the film, as if this was a great advantage; in other words, because they weren't miming, they could act better. But there's no need to act when you're singing. You're emoting. You're bulging your eyes, swelling your lungs and signally failing to look like a real human being engaged in normal activity. This is not an acting film, which is why I am baffled by Oscar nominations for Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. I am assured that Hathaway is a nailed on winner for Best Supporting Actress, but since her main achievement is to look thin, have her hair cut off and keep a straight face while bawling out a sentimental ballad, then I can't quite see what she will be wining for. Jackman manages to look the same age all the way from 1815 to 1832, and bellows his songs as if he'd just ruptured something, but if that's what people call acting, so be it.
The film is essentially a sillier and more sentimental version of Oliver! (the musical), just as Hugo's novel is a longer more crusading version of a Dickens book. I don't think it tells us anything about anything we didn't already know, and fails to create a single credible human being, let alone a relationship or even a thought. Every so often, an actor spoke a few words, without singing, and every time, I yearned for some proper speaking. Please, just talk to each other. Make me feel like I'm dealing with reality. But no, the singing started again, and I had to keep listening to perfectly good actors failing to be perfectly good singers.
Director Tom Hooper of King's Speech fame, is behind this unholy mess. Whereas King's Speech was a perfect bromance, simple, straightforward, relational and engaging, this is the opposite. It's had a fortune spent on it, with swooping crane shots and fake barricades, and it all amounts to precisely zilch. I know it will be a massive hit, but if you have any qualms about going, don't listen to those siren voices telling you it's really good – even if you don't like musicals. It's not. It's hideous. You have been warned.