The Bottom Line:
Although Les Miserables was one of my favorite movies of 2012, the cinematic version does not live up to the splendor of the West End/Broadway production, exemplifying the enduring relevance of live theater. In a nutshell, director Tom Hooper's motion picture adaptation makes some daring choices in casting, cinematography, and sound design. Some of those choices backfire a bit, but most of them result in a satisfying interpretation to one of the greatest musicals ever created.
Because of my adoration for both the Victor Hugo novel and the stage production of Les Miserables (composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg with lyrics by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel), my analysis of the movie may be far more biased than your typical film review. Like millions of other Les Miz fans I have been waiting for decades to see the movie version. Now that's it's here, and it's made most (but by no means all) of its fans happy, it's time to share our opinions. Here's mine. And be forewarned: there will be a lot of SPOILERS. If you don't want to know what happens in the film, please do not read onward. Instead, why don't you read my article on the Seven Reasons Why Les Miserables is awesome!
Brilliant acting. Star power. Angelic singing voices. Pick two.
This seems to be the general rule of the film. The big name stars such as Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway provided powerful portrayals of Hugo's characters, yet they didn't possess the same caliber of voice found in the Original London Cast recording. Samantha Barks, on the other hand, may not have immediate name recognition (by Hollywood standards) yet her voice and presence are exquisite.
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean:
From the moment we behold Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, we are immediately struck by his weary, destitute expression. We know by a single glance his life has been ravaged by misfortune. Jackman's Valjean is grizzled, embittered, yet still harbors immense strength. Throughout the film, Jackman's voice betrays both pain and a deeply seeded hope. During the prologue, when Valjean sings "What have I done, sweet Jesus, what have I done," Jackman establishes the unique, breathy style that will serve as a signature for many of the film's solos. Although Jackman delivers an excellent performance, one I hope garners an Oscar nod, most of his musical numbers focus more on a cinematic style of acting rather than a traditional musical-theater performance. (Broadway style acting doesn't exactly thrive during extreme close-ups.) Basically, I enjoyed watching Jackman and the other actors create dynamic, believeable characters, but I have absolutely no interest in purchasing the movie soundtrack. Musically, the film does not please the ear in the same way as the Broadway and West End incarnations. It's wonderful to watch, mind you. I just don't want to listen to it while driving on a road trip.
Still, there are some beautifully melodic moments. The show's creators bestowed Jackman with the honor and challenge of singing a new addition to the musical, a newly composed song called "Suddenly." It's a sweet, almost lullabye-like solo which ValJean sings as young Cosette sleeps. It's a touching moment that develops the protagonist's character even further, showing us that he is not just raising Cosette out of a sense of duty but out of a newly discovered sense of love.
Considering the opera-caliber voices that have taken on the role of Jean Valjean in the past, Jackman faced an Everest-sized challenge, one that he takes on with artistic valor and raw emotion. All of his numbers worked for me, with the exception of the iconic "Bring Him Home." That was when I truly missed the man who originated the role on the British stage, Mr. Colm Wilkinson. (But guess who makes a cameo?)
Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop:
One of the best casting choices was selecting Colm Wilkinson (who to most of us will always be the ultimate Jean Valjean). Wilkinson plays the bishop, the man who gives Valjean the silver candles and a second chance at redemption. The role is very small, of course, but I was very pleased with the Bishop's heavenly return at the end of the story. It's a wonderful nod to Wilkinson as a performer, and thematically it reaffirms the deeply spiritual message at the heart of Victor Hugo's tale.