Hathaway mesmerizes in 'Les Mis'

by Jase Howell

Well here we have the newest musical adapted to film, "Les Miserables." It's amazing that "Footloose" and "Hairspray" made it - twice in both cases - to the big screen quicker than the famous Broadway hit, but I suppose it was worth the wait.

I say suppose, because I must beg for forgiveness. I have never read the novel by Victor Hugo, nor seen a stage production of the story. I remember its tremendous success in the 1980s, and of course I had heard a few of the songs over the years, but this was my first exposure to the entire story.

For those who like me are ignorant to the story, here it is in nutshell. Then again, this is an epic story, so a nutshell may not be so easy, and believe me, the nearly three hour running time proves that. The story opens with protagonist Jean Veljean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner-slave serving his last day after spending 19 years in prison. The opening sequence, like the rest of the film, is all musical and bombastic, as the prisoners try to pull a ship to port during a storm.

Pardoned Veljean travels to monastery, where he gains the conviction to change his life. This is not so easy as in opening sequences we are reminded of officer Javert, who took any chance he could to get the parolee behind bars. Away from Javert, Valjean begins a new life as a businessman and mayor six years later.

Eventually, Valjean, stumbles across an ex-employee of his, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is sick and in desperate need to take care of her daughter. The daughter, Cosette, grows some years later into a woman portrayed by Amanda Seyfreid (who, I'm sorry, is not nearly as gifted as Hathaway in the vocal department). If Valjean's issues aren't enough already, the grown Cosette has fallen in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary. Maruis, being the strapping-devil that he is, already has an admirer in Eponine (Samantha Barks). Thus bring on the revolutionary segment. Oh, the drama.

But let's get to reality - either you're a musical person or you're not. The dialogue and plot maneuvers here are all told in song. One would think the characters awake in the morning singing, and loudly at that. The book by Alain Boubil and the script by William Nicholson provide the background, but the questions really are in the acting and directing departments.

So, how does this memorable Broadway hit translate to the big screen. I think director Tom Hooper (with a whopping budget) is able to make this as magical as possible, if not magical certainly bombastic enough.

But let's get down to the details of who can pull off the singing and who can't. Believe it or not, they all can - even Russell Crowe, although Crowe's singing is more like a Catholic priest delivering Mass. Jackman we knew could do this, but as talented as he may be a little goes a long way. The final scenes of him are almost painstakingly over the top. Seyfried and Raymayne are on their marks, despite not being exceptional vocally. Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter also have several scenes in the movie. I admire both, but neither seemed needed to the extent they are used.

In the end, this is music, music, music and more music, with some French uprisings and melodrama. Hooper ("The King's Speech") does a good job of making this engaging, especially considering its length. But the star is Hathaway, who proves herself as a dual threat killing you emotionally with her acting while singing. Her performance is nothing short of amazing. Also watch for Barks, a theatre actress making her first turn at cinema. There is a lot to like in her.

If you don't enjoy musicals, go see something else, but if you do enjoy musicals this may be an extraordinary treat. I may not have a frame of reference, but I can recognize determination and talent. That is abound in "Les Miserables." Just don't make me sing it, I haven't the chops.