The King's Speech. And it stars several acclaimed actors. And they're singing! "Oscar, please!"
Well, not so fast. I actually found Les Misérables to be a rather flawed movie, those flaws being a combination of things baked into the original musical and new problems introduced in translating it to film.
I've never actually seen the stage version, but one can gather from the film that it's actually more opera than musical. There are perhaps a dozen spoken lines in the entire film, with basically everything sung. It leads to a very fractured presentation. Only occasionally does the singing seem to coalesce into an actual melody of an actual song that last for a few actual minutes. Most of the time, people are just trading lines back and forth in a spray of notes so random, you can't even quite tell if they're actually on key or not. It's disjointed and off-putting. It's a device that might -- and I do mean might -- have worked on the stage, where the audience hardly ever loses consciousness of the artifice of setting. But in a film, where everything is meant to be taken as completely realistic, rendered in faithful detail and extreme close-up, it really doesn't work at all.
The film is overlong at two hours and 45 minutes, though the parts that seem superfluous are things that, narratively speaking, no one would ever dream of actually cutting. There are two comic relief characters that unnecessarily chew up half an hour, but as they provide the only moments of levity in an otherwise thoroughly bleak tale, they were no doubt thought vital in the stage production.
There are multiple times jumps in the first half of the film, each one skipping over so many years of time that the rest of the cast rotates entirely around the two main characters. And yet cutting any of that material would compromise the narrative context for their struggle against each other. So the end result is that long stretches of the film are rather powerfully boring.
But there are a few moments when it's utterly gripping. And they're moments that notably run counter to everything I just described. Sometimes, the random notes find a lasting melody. They're delivered by neither the main characters with the plodding, decade-spanning plot, nor the needless comic relief. They're intense and emotional. Specifically, they're two of the most famous songs from Les Misérables: "I Dreamed a Dream" and "On My Own."
I may be down on the Oscar chances of the film itself, but when it comes to Best Supporting Actress, give it to Anne Hathaway right now! As Fantine, her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" is absolutely chilling. The solo moves through sorrow, misery, and rage, and the entire number unfolds in a single, unbroken take -- most of it a tight close-up on her anguished face. And not only does she give this, perhaps the most powerful song performance ever in a movie musical, she has other moments in the movie nearly as powerful. The times you feel emotion most are when she's on screen, and it's all the more impressive when you consider how little emotional momentum the rest of the story is building up for her.
That said, if Anne Hathaway weren't in the film, I might well be singing the praises of Samantha Barks instead. As Éponine, she delivers the famous "On My Own," and it's the second most moving number in the film. Not coincidentally, the staging of song is quite similar to "I Dreamed a Dream." There are a few cuts at the beginning and end of the song, but the bulk of it is a two- or three-minute, unbroken take that allows the actress to just perform in real time as she would on the stage... but without the obstacle of needing to reach "the back row" with an oversized performance. It's another song of anguish, with tightly controlled emotion spilling out. And it's a powerful moment in the film, despite the fact that the song itself is actually the weakest use of the melody in the musical. (The same leitmotif occurs at two other key points, both with more powerful context.)
But as wonderful as Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks are, Russell Crowe is bad in opposite measure. Outclassed vocally by every other actor in the film, and apparently incapable of accessing more than one emotion, he lumbers through the film without ever making his character sympathetic (or even comprehensible). I cannot fathom what was going through the minds of whoever cast him.
Other actors have mixed results in my eyes. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play their parts with fun relish, but they're the comic relief roles that I noted felt largely extraneous to me. Eddie Redmayne is successful at times as romantic lead Marius, but I found myself overly conscious of his performance compared to other things in which I've seen him; he's usually so muted in his expression that his heightened pitch here seemed better suited to stage than screen. And in the lead, Hugh Jackman's vocals were the most operatic of anyone in the film -- well suited to the material, but not of a style I always enjoyed.
I strongly suspect that people who have seen (and loved) the original musical would be more predisposed to enjoy this film. (I know the person I saw it with had, and did.) But otherwise, I would really only recommend the film for Anne Hathaway. See it either if you want to see the performance that will win her an Academy Award... or if you want to share the rage if somehow she doesn't. The film as a whole, I give a C-.