Movie stars often are applauded as risk-takers for singing in musicals. Truth is, they get a lot of breaks.
Unless they are egregiously bad singers, as Pierce Brosnan was in "Mamma Mia!," they are considered successes. By that measure, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are virtuosos in "Les Misérables," and Russell Crowe a real crooner, because he stays on key, even if his adenoidal baritone shows zero range.
Contrast Crowe's vocals with those of a gifted singer as this energetic, engaging film adaptation of the long-running stage musical will do when actor Eddie Redmayne comes on screen and the jig appears to be up.
Except it isn't. When Crowe does not appear for stretches of "Les Misérables," you miss him.
It's partly because Crowe's story line, in which his single-minded 19th century French police officer, Javert, hunts for the parole-breaking ex-convict Jean Valjean (Jackman), drives the movie, and Redmayne's story line as a love-struck revolutionary stalls it.
It's mostly because Crowe is a big movie star, and Redmayne isn't. And this is a movie.
There lies the rub for musical-theater fans. They're unlikely to see a Hollywood version of their favorite musical without big stars attached, and big stars' voices often pale next to Broadway or West End actors' voices.
The tradeoff is easier to accept in "Les Misérables" because director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") filmed his actors singing live before the cameras instead of having them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks. This approach knocks down a wall between actor and audience by emphasizing emotion over musical notes.
The movie feels most alive not when the actors belt, but when they struggle to start a song, to get the words out, because their characters are too overcome by emotion. This is especially true of Jackman's achingly sympathetic Valjean, conflicted hero of this movie, the stage musical and Victor Hugo's 1862 novel.
In singing the role of a good man who wants to get right with God but sometimes goes off track, Jackman occasionally goes off key. Yes, Jackman is a Tony-winning Broadway musical performer (2003's "The Boy From Oz"). He still goes off-key in "Les Misérables."
It doesn't matter, and sometimes enhances his performance. Valjean, having assumed a new identity as a factory owner after his prison stint, lives a high-pressure life in trying to elude Javert, once his prison guard. Jackman's voice cracks because Valjean is trying so hard not to crack. Yet it still retains a warm, inviting quality.
Jackman and Crowe, in all their work, let the audience in on what their characters are thinking. In "Les Misérables," they think before they sing, adding depth to the Javert-Valjean confrontations.
Crowe plays Javert as if he suspects he is dumber than Valjean, so there is a lot of preparing to posture, followed by bluster, as Crowe starts a song. As Valjean tries to mask his real identity from Javert, he fights his natural instinct to be genuine, and Jackman's vocals reflect this conflict.
Hathaway, too, sells her singing through acting in her small role as factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine. She hits all her notes in her tragic anthem "I Dreamed a Dream," the stage musical's best-known song. Most affecting, though, is the clear effort it takes to perform the song, how it consumes Fantine's flagging energy.
Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen use unusual angles and framing to enliven the movie in a way its songs do not. These songs, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, are well-crafted but not especially memorable.
Close shots in which characters appear to almost address the audience, while looking slightly off camera, lend urgency to early scenes. Camera movements go off-kilter in crowd scenes, underscoring the desperation of the French poor, who are post-Revolution but again suffering under the monarchy.
The camera calisthenics grow wearisome when Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen appear as the underhanded Thenardiers, guardians of Fantine's young daughter, Cosette. These actors need no assist in being colorful.
They are suitably scuzzy in their roles, but their casting is too on the nose. Baron Cohen just played a French comic figure threatening the well-being of a child in the period film "Hugo," and Bonham Carter looks and acts too much like her Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd." She should give other actresses a shot at playing the sooty harridans in movie musicals.
Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia!"), a budding movie star with vocal chops, handles her singing duties well as the grown Cosette. But she also comes off as a bit bland, and lacks chemistry with Redmayne, who plays Cosette's love interest.
Redmayne's ("My Week With Marilyn") singing shows almost operatic range, and he invests Marius, the revolutionary, with kindness and integrity. But the section of the film devoted to Marius' political activities is not very compelling.
Of the movie's lesser-known actors, film newcomer Samantha Barks makes the strongest impression, as Eponine, daughter of the Thenardiers and fancier of Marius. The magnetic Barks' performance of "On My Own" rivals Hathaway's, of the very similar "Dream," as the film's most memorable.
But a movie designed to let established stars stretch leaves little room for one to be born.
★ ★ ★
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried
Director: Tom Hooper
Rated: PG-13 (suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)