Previously, my only exposure to Victor Hugo's 19th century novel Les Misérables was Claude Lelouch's terrific 1995 film adaptation, which was in French and had no singing and updated the drama to the era between World Wars I and II. Lelouch took many other liberties with Hugo's story, as it turns out, so going in to see Tom Hooper's Les Mis, I had few preconceived notions. I didn't even know any of the music, outside of "I Dreamed a Dream". So whereas my wife enjoyed it mainly because she grew up watching the stage musical on Broadway and was thus nostalgic, I had more of a first timer's reaction.
I found the music strong (if the songs themselves aren't that memorable) and the story rich – though I suppose we have Victor Hugo to thank for the latter. Hugh Jackman, with his stage experience, makes a fine Jean Valjean, the brave but tormented hero. Anne Hathaway, though her part is surprisingly brief, deserves her accolades for "I Dreamed a Dream" – it's the highlight of the film. As for the rest of the cast, Russell Crowe is okay as the relentless Inspector Javert (though I might have preferred an authoritative baritone in the role), Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks are callow but fine (the little-known Barks did a year on the London run of the show), but Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are distracting as greedy innkeepers, and their attempts at farcical comedy are a bad match for the film's realist tone.
Blame for the latter miscalculation must be shared with Hooper, a former TV guy with no major musical experience (he won the Best Director Oscar for The King's Speech). Hooper has been lauded for his bold choice to have his cast sing live rather than to a pre-recorded track, and chastised for his failure to make full use of the big screen to fit this epic saga. I feel that his reliance on close-ups succeeds during the musical's many intimate solo songs – "I Dreamed a Dream" works so well because it's all one shot – but flounders badly during the bigger numbers. Obviously the songs were written to be performed onstage, so whereas seeing a huge cast all at once must have great impact, that impact is substantially lessened when you constantly have to cut between the performers during those numbers. Hooper and his editors Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens never overcome this obstacle. Their cuts are haphazard and lack rhythm.
Thumbs down also to Danny Cohen's bland cinematography. Though it may be right for the film's dingy mood, it's all a bit flat. Much of Les Mis looks like Oliver!, if the latter were an early Terry Gilliam film. (Before you protest, let me add that Gilliam would have displayed much more wit and creativity.) But there are still some lovely emotional moments, and if you – like Hooper – care only about the music and the story, and couldn't give a hang about the visuals or some of the casting choices, then you should be happy.