Les Miserables is an long, mostly entertaining, over the top, melodramatic mess. Of course, it is very openly a melodrama, as per its source material of Victor Hugo's massive novel, but it falls down by cranking up the emotional volume to '11' (as per Spinal Tap) and never pulling it any lower than 9. I like the stage musical, but seeing realistic and gritty sets with hand held endless closeups of actors and their tonsils emoting their pain takes a toll on a viewer. Somehow in theater, it worked much better and had more levels and moods.
I may be the only doubter on the radical approach that director Tom Hooper took, by having the actors sing live to camera, but the tuneful songs are mostly undermined by screeching and Russell Crowe's vocal limitations. Though this approach works nicely for Ann Hathaway's Oscar moment in the sun, 'I Dreamed a Dream' which is an intimate song of despair, it mostly doesn't work for the rest of the musical material. It particularly does Hugh Jackman, a terrific singer normally, a disservice, where he shrieks unpleasantly much of the time, as his character is in pain for all three of the film's hours.
The entire cast, including Crowe (singing aside), acquit themselves admirably for the most part and are well cast. Though Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter's Thenardiers are very over the top in the baggy pants vaudeville of their comic relief, they are a welcome break from the earnest howling and gushing tears. Hathaway, who has no much more than twenty minutes screen time, deserved her Oscar, and Jackman pulls off noble and selfless as well as anyone out there, vocal screeches aside.
The film looks great from a production design point of view, but I hate how it was shot by Hooper, with way too many closeups and needless jerky handheld camera. I imagine he thought he was updating the creaky movie musical style for the new millennium, but it failed, at least here.
The songs are melodic in the spirit of Oliver!, but the lyrics are unsubtle and 'on the nose' and always were. So is the film style. This is one instance where I think the director needed to take a different approach from the source material, rather than being too faithful. For example it didn't have to be 'sung through', there could have been some spoken dialogue, giving the songs more weight. There also could have been a more intimate approach with some scenes, and the chorus numbers were awkwardly staged for realism, which is impossible, it might have been better if they stood and delivered to the movie audience and broken the 'third wall'. I realize Hooper did not want to alienate the devoted fans.
Still, it's worthwhile and interesting to see the approach that was taken to put this beloved musical on film, there's a lot of talent here. Les Miserables can be effective if you put your helmet on to prevent the whole thing beating you over the head with its bombastic style and take it for the overly rich, often nausea inducing French pastry that it is.