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Hathaway shines in ‘Les Misérables’

12/27/2012 - West Side Leader
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By Craig Marks

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) embraces a very ill Fantine (Anne Hathaway) in “Les Misérables.”
Photo: Laurie Sparham; courtesy of Universal Studios
Anne Hathaway’s singing is the best thing about the movie version of “Les Misérables.” And her acting may be the second-best thing. There’s other good stuff in the film — and some stuff that’s slightly better than “OK” — but it’s all overwhelmed by Hathaway’s phenomenal performance.

Hathaway plays Fantine, a rail-thin waif whose life in 19th-century France is harrowing and full of despair. But she’s not alone — the streets of Paris are filled with desperate souls who look like the walking dead. Yes, this is one appropriately titled movie.

Of course, this is only the latest incarnation of Victor Hugo’s novel. It has been turned into films several times and, in 1985, into a hit musical that would play throughout the world and become an oft-repeated PBS special. Now director Tom Hooper has gathered an all-star cast to bring the musical to the silver screen.

The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who was thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and was kept there for 19 years. The guard Javert (Russell Crowe) finally sets him free but sends him off with disquieting words. He tells Valjean that, despite being out of chains, his life is over, as his conviction will hang over him for the rest of his life.

Valjean does find a way out, but it involves ripping up his parole papers, assuming a new identity and becoming a fugitive. Javert will doggedly pursue him, and in almost every one of his scenes, he will come this close to capturing his prey. (It becomes almost comical. If there were Laundromats in 19th-century France, Javert and Valjean would find themselves at adjoining washers.)

Under Valjean’s employ is Fantine, a factory worker. Hathaway’s time in the movie is brief, but, oh, what she does with it. Her anguished rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper. She manages to knock out a killer rendition of the song while showing the full extent of Fantine’s downward spiral, a delicate balancing act that she handles superbly. Like the other actors, Hathaway sang live rather than mouthing the words to a prerecorded track.

The two actors tasked with carrying the heavy lifting, Jackman and Crowe, give performances that would receive standing ovations if they were on the Kenley Players stage. But on the big screen, there’s something lacking. Crowe seems to leave his comfort zone when having to sing in the upper register. Jackman, whose character at some points bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Landon, handles well Valjean’s times of grief. It’s when the music calls for rattle-the-barricades bombast that you long for one of the PBS pledge-break Jean Valjeans.

In smaller but still substantial roles, Samantha Barks is terrific as Éponine, the daughter of the conniving Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, offering welcome comic relief). Amanda Seyfried makes a fine Cosette, though there are some moments when she sounded like Disney’s Snow White.

Last week, I reviewed the Cirque du Soleil film “Worlds Away.” What that movie and “Les Misérables” have in common is that they were both shows out of their element — the live stage — and both succeed as a movie up to a point. And if “Les Mis” is still best enjoyed in person, the film adaptation has its own rewards, with Hathaway’s performance first among them.

The movie, which opened in theaters Dec. 25, is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.

3 1/2 Stars (out of four)


Craig Marks is a cartoonist and editorial, sports and entertainment writer for the West Side Leader.

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