There's a reason why Anne Hathaway’s Oscar win was the only foregone conclusion to emerge from what many predicted would be an all-round awards sweeper.
Her 16 minutes of screen time in the iconic role of misused factory worker turned toothless prostitute Fantine strikes like lightning on a horizon that’s otherwise weirdly uninspiring.
That’s not to say that the rest of Tom Hooper’s ambitious adaptation of this most beloved of stage musicals is bad, or that there aren’t other performances of substance and note here.
Hugh Jackman, for one, acquits himself technically as well as you’d expect as long-suffering hero Jean Valjean. (For the uninitiated, he’s the one in Victor Hugo’s novel who’s jailed for two decades for stealing a loaf of bread, inspired to seek redemption after an act of mercy, reinvents himself as a respected factory owner but ends up sabotaging himself with his own decency and going on the run again with the departed Fantine’s infant daughter Cosette in his care.)
And then there’s the brooding tension with Russell Crowe’s frowny copper Javert, whose over-zealous obsession with Valjean really only makes sense if you read into it a degree of homoerotic subtext. Crowe’s foghorn vocals don’t distract as much as you’ve heard (there are plenty of toneless moments to go around the entire cast), though Javert’s half-baked characterisation just might.
The Parisian portion of Les Misérables becomes scattershot even in Victor Hugo’s novel, so it’s no surprise that an edge of ADD emerges here.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s clownish villain duo seem lifted from an entirely different film (Sweeney Todd, specifically), while Hooper’s yin-yang combo of careening crane shots and nostril-hair close-ups doesn’t always serve either character or action as well as you’d hope.
With Hathaway out of the picture, it’s Eddie Redmayne who takes over the ‘standout performer’ duties, playing a young idealist who’s swept up in an impassioned revolutionary student crowd but ends up being easily distracted by Cosette (now grown-up and played by Amanda Seyfried).
Love at first sight’s never easy to do on screen, it being the kind of larger-than-life trope that will always work better in the context of a stage show and better yet in a 1,200-page novel.
So it’s no fault of either Redmayne or Seyfried’s that their ‘love story through a fence’ never really resonates, making it easy for Samantha Barks’ lovelorn Éponine to outshine Cosette completely.
Hooper and his producers deserve credit for having the ambition to follow through on a big-screen musical so unashamedly.
You can’t do Les Mis by halves after all – every character is an extreme, every song life or death, every full stop an exclamation mark – and much of what makes the film divisive is woven into its DNA.
Simply put, three hours of sung-through dialogue is never going to be everybody’s cup of tea. But given the much-publicised decision to embrace rawness and have the actors record their songs on-set, it’s odd how few and far between moments of real emotional immediacy are.
Hathaway’s shattering one-take ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is one and will make you half-wish Hooper had thrown reverence to the wind and created an extra hour’s worth of story for her character.
Much later, Redmayne’s ‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ is another stand-out, a heartfelt ode to fallen friends that buoys an otherwise leaden third act.
There are enough individually brilliant moments to recommend Les Misérables; die-hard fans will lap it up, and Hooper’s undeniably bold approach will probably sway a few first-timers along the way.
Yet ultimately there’s something hollow about it. For all its impassioned warbling and sweep-swoop lensing, this adaptation’s all too often dead behind the eyes.