At 2 hours, 37 minutes, this felt a lot longer than The Hobbit's 2 hours, 46 minutes. Despite that, I never once checked the time. There was enough going on that I felt absorbed by the whole spectacle.
Perhaps spectacle isn't the right word. While there was plenty of it when necessary, this film had a touch more grit than I initially expected. In that respect, the production design was extremely well done. The transformation of Jean Valjean from scarred and bedraggled ex-con to well-groomed Mayor and so on was well done.
Hugh Jackman did (as I had expected) a remarkable job as Jean Valjean. Anne Hathaway was pretty decent as Fantine, though her facial expressions are a bit too animated when singing "I Dreamed a Dream." When you see it, you'll know what I mean. Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks worked well as Cosette and Eponine respectively, both in looks and voice. Eddie Redmayne was really good as Marius, though there were a few times that the close-up of his face did not do him any favors. I'm speaking in terms of his quivering chin, and not his actual looks. He looked the part, he played it well, and for the most part, his singing was decent. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers were spot on.
Poor Russell Crowe, though. As The Wife pointed out, she thought our friends were being theatre snobs about his performance. They were not. For the most part, he looked the part of Javert with the exception of needing a razor. Javert's back story was that he was "born inside a jail" (those are the actual lyrics) to a convict father and gypsy mother. He renounces them both and begins working in the prison; the same one where he oversees a convict named Jean Valjean. Javert needs to be in stark contrast to his background and familial ties. As such, it requires him to be buttoned-down and well-groomed despite his "need to prove" and brutish attitude toward those like his parents. Again, Russell Crowe could look the part, if only they had given him a shave with his haircut. Then again, that wouldn't have solved my problem with him. I'll get to that in a second.
For his part, I expected more out of director Tom Hooper after The King's Speech and the John Adams mini-series. The camera work felt sloppy at times. The use of handheld cameras was done well in the scenes where it felt like you were running through the streets with Marius, Enjolras, and the rest of the revolutionaries. What did not work with the photography was that, with the exception of the crane shots at Le Marque's funeral and at the end, it was almost always shaky. To that end, there were times when people were singing and they would move, but the camera wouldn't follow them right away. Example 1: Fantine has just died, Valjean and Javert are singing at each other in the hospital, but Hugh Jackman's face from the nose up is not on screen. Example 2: Eponine is singing "On My Own" in the rain. While leaning against a doorway, she sinks down to the ground in defeat that Marius will never be hers. The camera doesn't follow right away, and the frame is empty before it swings down onto her again. It reminded me of amateur theatre where a spotlight operator doesn't know what he's doing and can't keep track of the person on stage they are supposed to be following. In this regard, it felt less like being there with them and more like an overzealous film student.
Returning to Russell Crowe's singing. It was Hooper's decision that the actors "sing live," meaning that they sang while they were filming and dubbed in the score later, rather than recording the songs in a studio and having the actors mouth it in later. Hooper did this because he wanted it to feel "raw and real." What you are left with is a Javert that only sings five notes. And while Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway have proven in the past that they can sing, and sing very well, some of their most well-known songs only sound vaguely reminiscent of their stage musical originals. In a few places, this worked, specifically "A Little Fall of Rain" and "A Heart Full of Love." There were others that were just as good. It was an interesting choice, but just because it's something that hasn't been done before, it doesn't mean you should do it.
Perhaps the most surprising performances were those of Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and newcomer Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Stole the show.
But for all of my grievances listed above, it was an amazing film to watch. It looked the right way, hit almost all of the right marks, and left me feeling satisfied. Just don't expect me to run out and buy the soundtrack. I'll stick with the original cast symphonic recording in my car (that I stole from The Wife).
Word to the Nerd