The film version of the world's longest-running musical was never going to be low-key.
And Les Miserables is a big, bold extravaganza, played at a ceaseless fever pitch, with an all-star cast. Whether or not it sweeps you up in its determined embrace may depend on your commitment to the sung-through musical form, and your staying power.
Victor Hugo's classic account of obsession and redemption, set to the backdrop of the Paris Uprising of 1832, has been filmed many times, but this is the first screen outing for the musical. Hugh Jackman plays ex-convict Jean Valjean, who breaks parole in order to hide his history and forge a successful new life as a businessman, yet is plagued for years by indefatigable policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Anne Hathaway is the tragic seamstress Fantine, whose daughter Valjean adopts as his own, representing his life's saving grace.
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In contrast to his unshowy direction of The King's Speech, Tom Hooper pulls out all the stops on this one. From the opening dynamic scene of Valjean's liberation from the prison galleys, through to the armed rebellion on the Parisian streets, Hooper and his team never stint on spectacular production design and sweeping camerawork, nor on the grimy close-up of the poverty and injustice Hugo described.
It's full-on. Hooper would have been well advised to scale the whole thing down a tad, omitting some superfluous songs just to relieve us of the oppressive weight of it all. Each of the film's highs during its near three hours is met with a corresponding longuer, and the experience of being alternatively roused and subdued is exhausting.
With no recourse to spoken words, the actors have to cut the mustard in song. However, at times one feels the lack of musical direction to assist them. Crowe is all at sea, words seeming to leave his mouth with the greatest reluctance; Jackson – a bona fide musical performer – is erratic, wonderful at times, yet losing control as the pitch soars. The Brits fare better overall: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter lend great zest as the comic grotesques M and Mme Thenardier, and youngsters Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are revelatory in support.
But if there was a single reason to see the film, it would be Anne Hathaway. So soon after her cynical and feisty Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, she is heartbreaking as that character's antithesis; the musical's signature song, I Dreamed A Dream, is performed – both sung and acted – to perfection.
Other, better period crime movies cast a long shadow over Gangster Squad. Sean Penn is the pugnaciously malign gangster Mickey Cohen, who in the late 1940s is lording it over the fledging Los Angeles, until an off-the-books police squad (led by Josh Brolin and Ryan Gosling) decides to fight dirty. Penn's make-up-heavy monster too heavily evokes De Niro's Capone in The Untouchables, Brolin's crew is a pale copy of Costner's Feds in the same film, while the depiction of the corrupted city makes one pine for LA Confidential. An avoidable shoot-out.
In contrast to the week's other releases, the Irish production What Richard Did is low-budget, of modest length and ambition. And it is the most completely satisfying of the three. The story concerns a privileged and impressive Dublin teenager, who has his whole life mapped out before a needless incident throws a tragic spanner in the works. Expect to see a lot more of newcomer Jack Reynor, who plays Richard with exceptional poise and charisma.