Somehow, somewhere, Victor Hugo’s well-worn tale of innocence crushed, good deeds that won’t go unpunished and young French idealists lost in a bloody battle of their own making is going to move some folks to tears and/or fits of Oscar cheerleading.
Then there’s a different reaction, that of being worn out by yet another overlong awards-season movie masquerading as an important artistic achievement. Tom Hooper’s adaptation of big 1980s Broadway musical Les Miserables feels like one simultaneously very long and manic race to wrench every conceivable human emotion out of the familiar story, to make a climax out of every song, whether sung with relative ease by Hugh Jackman, perfectly at home with singing stage roles, or Russell Crowe, a perfectly good sport who pushes hard to make his croaky voice rise to the occasion.
The tale of Jean Valjean (Jackman), a former prisoner who spends much of his life on the lam, avoiding capture by wily Inspector Javert (Crowe) while also finding time to care for vulnerable single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and eventually take responsibility for her daughter, Cosette, is simply overstuffed. How many shots of Dickensian huddled masses, the Occupy Paris crowd and lost little ones teeming on city streets can Hooper give us? How many Fellini-esque close-ups, beautiful in their ugliness, of a dirtied-up Jackman, or a just-ravished, newly shorn Hathaway, or nearly dead student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) dragged through the sewers, or the painted ladies of a certain ignoble profession, can the filmmaker offer up?
Les Miserables does come with intermittently entertaining comic relief, in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the wacky, greedy caretakers of young Cosette (Isabelle Allen). And the big musical numbers admittedly do build into impressive displays of performance power. Hooper leaves viewers no choice: Submit!