Life sucks and then you die. Merry Christmas!
No, wait, come back—the misery is actually quite exquisite in in the film adaption of the Broadway musical Les Misérables. This is two-and-a-half hours of the cozy, weepy kind of misery, like the type at the end of Old Yeller or when Beth you-know-whats in Little Women. (Not, say, the horrifying kind of misery of City of God or a Ken Burns documentary.)
Les Mis originated as a 1,900-page Victor Hugo novel and, in the 1980s, became a blockbuster Broadway show. The plot, in a nutshell: Back in 19th-century France, a burly ex-con named Jean Valjean—or Prisoner 24601 to his friends—breaks parole. He's hunted for, roughly, three decades by police inspector Javert, who isn't so worried about murderers and rapists because he's busy tailing a former bread thief. (Way to protect and serve, Javert!) Meanwhile, Valjean seeks penance for his truly heinous carb-loading past by rescuing the daughter of a dying whore. And then a bunch of proto-hipster students launch a revolution in Paris and Valjean joins them to look after his daughter's revolutionary boyfriend. And, oh yeah, everyone is poor and miserable and dying of consumption and stuff.
Why do we love all that agony? Probably because it has a hummable chorus. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) had actors perform live on set, rather than lip sync to a pre-recorded track; the resulting tunes are less soaring and more delicate, all the better to play up the wretched anguish. As Valjean, Hugh Jackman combines his Broadway cred with his Wolverine side, so Valjean’s infamous feats of strength are as believable as his frequent, tortured cries to God. Perky Anne Hathaway dirties herself up to play the factory girl-turned-streetwalker who wails "I Dreamed a Dream" in a style that proves she’s actually read the lyrics. (Seriously, everyone else, that song is not triumphant.) As with all the woe-is-me ballads, Hathaway's performance is shot in close, sustained takes of her red eyes and quivering lips. It's a claustrophobic way to shoot a sprawling movie musical, but effectively distances the flick from feeling like a sooty episode of Glee.
Everybody gets a close-up in Cryface: The Musical; it’s an actor’s playground and every actor brought plenty of toys. Tony-winning Brit Eddie Redmayne scores the biggest coup in the milquetoast role of love-struck Marius when he elevates the lament "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" to at least the level of the self-pitying standard "On My Own." Some of the smallest parts are sung with the most confidence, from plucky little Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) to revolutionary leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit from Next to Normal, who absolutely must be invited back to Hollywood’s next musical). Broadway's original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, has a fitting cameo as the life-changing bishop who "bought [Valjean's] soul for God," while comic relief is left in the capable hands of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the thieving Thénardiers. If there’s a weak link, it’s Russell Crowe as Javert. The wavery baritone is no Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! (faint praise), but at least the off-key Brosnan looked like he wanted to be there; the hesitant Crowe looks like he'd take a hug from Valjean in place of surrender.
The movie's greatest achievement may be in stringing together the bits of plot and context that Broadway didn’t have to bother connecting. Hooper pans over mountains and shipyards and the Notre Dame cathedral in Valjean’s journey, and, in a fantastic bit of blocking, manages to make the student rebellion actually make sense (it begins as a massive riot before collapsing into a barricaded cul-de-sac).
The miserables of Les Mis may not all make it out alive, but this is no dour history lesson. Tears will be shed in the movie theater, for the rousing anthems just as much as the weepy ballads. Is it cheese? Oh, oui. But this is grade-A, vaguely French, wonderfully acted and perfectly picturesque cheese, and there’s nothing quite so delicious at Christmastime.
Les Misérables is in theaters December 25.