I have to give this a decidedly mixed review.
My first impression before the film's first hour was over was a silent reminder "don't buy the soundtrack." The singing, even from Hugh Jackman who acquitted himself so well as "Curly" in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" is, to put it charitably, just passable. Russell Crowe does as well as can be expected since he is a non-singer to begin with, but the others do not have the kind of voices that are needed to put over this kind of material.
Cinematically, it's a bit over-the-top with its wondrous camera views from high places. Nothing is done to suggest that the squalor isn't real. The mud is as muddy as possible and the make-up (in extreme close-ups of Anne Hathaway for example), is enough to convince us that these wretched people had nothing to sing about.
Not being a fan of the show and familiar with only a couple of the songs, I was not expecting to be thrilled by the score alone--and I wasn't. Whether you have an appetite for these kind of musical numbers is clearly a matter of taste. Most of the lyrics are as downbeat and desperate as the story itself suggests.
A much needed touch of humor is furnished by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, although some of the humor is a bit gross and overdone.
The almost unrecognizable first appearance of Hugh Jackman as a slave hauling a ship with his comrades as Jaffert (Russell Crowe) looks on, is an astonishing moment. Jackson looks nothing like his real self, so part of his performance can be attributed to a marvelous make-up job. But he does well with the anguish and pain of seeing so much suffering around him. Anne Hathaway is obviously a singer/actress who does all she can with the powerful emotions she displays in her big scene, but her role is a small one in the scheme of things.
Despite the power of some of the performances, the overall effect for me was a story that was not well told because of script problems, making it a confusing mess for anyone not familiar with the basic outline of the tale and hard to follow unless paying strict attention.
Your musical taste will decide whether or not you love or hate this film, but it's fair to say that the songs are not rendered in the best possible way by having them performed live. The pre-recording of all the lyrics would have enhanced the big numbers which required more vocal ability and professional technique than is offered here.
Summing up: Definitely not for everyone, but the squalor of the French Revolution period is magnificently realistic with lavish, detailed sets and costumes that convey the right atmosphere. Stunning photography is evident in the final scene where Crowe's conscience forces him to take drastic action.
Biggest flaw: The lack of tension in the cat-and-mouse game between Crowe and Jackman that was so powerfully portrayed in straight dramatic versions of the story filmed previously which sharpened the suspense. Instead, Crowe's recognition of the hunted man is done so casually that there is no building of suspense from the outset.
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