Tom Hooper's adaptation of Les Misérables hinges on one central conceit: the choice to record the singing live on set. It's a massive indulgence for the actors, getting them as close to the feeling of "doing a musical" as is possible on screen. But the results live on the screen and all of the film's problems stem from this decision. This is because he's cast a lot of people who think they can sing, along with Russell Crowe who knows that he can't. The upshot of this is that all the "singers" concentrate on their acting at the expense of the songs, and Crowe is more intent on trying to hit the notes rather than make them sound good.
And sound good this film certainly does not, from the muffly mixing to the warbly voices, coming because Hooper is so desperate to wring every bit of emotion possible out of his performers during their songs that inevitably when they cry their throats tighten and the tunes are strangled. Only Samantha Barks (in the role of the lovesick Éponine) has a strong enough voice to truly carry her through, and as such she has the one song that isn't let down vocally (a very committed power through "On My Own"), but sadly even with her the acting is a touch too overcooked and she's the one who could sing it in her sleep.
That's down to Hooper, his visual choices, and how he has everyone performing. This Les Misérables is very close up-heavy in the songs and so what that leads to is when they come to their climaxes the cast naturally play to the house, and the results are invariably over the top. The most telling example of this is Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" scene, where she gets far too frenzied in a tight close up which ends up feeling like she's milking it for all she's worth rather than naturally being the character. That incessant need of Hooper's to get every last drop of feeling out of every frame is what lets everything down, and that's the approach in the dramatic scenes too for the most part.
Only Eddie Redmayne in his one big number finds the appropriate levels to go for in his acting, and resists Hooper's urge to push him off the cliff. The rest of the time it's the combination of either the performers not being up to the task vocally (Hugh Jackman, despite some lovely facial expressions is cringeworthy at times, sounding as if he's auditioning poorly for a reality tv show), or incredibly making the dodginess of the plot somehow work. A good deal of this is down to the quality of the musical writing, but when divorced from the self-contained songs the cast do settle down well enough to just about paper over the cracks.
From a visual standpoint, in general the film looks nice (when Hooper isn't throwing his camera around on a crane like a 5 year old who's unwrapped a new toy on Christmas morning) with the sets and especially the costumes being a treat for the eyes. The control of the tone slips occasionally too, with Helena Bonham Carter providing some comic relief amidst Sacha Baron Cohen giving a turn so embarrassing it's not even funny.
That balancing act of good and bad is the main characteristic of this Les Mis, but really it's just not half as well done as it could and probably should have been. Hooper has fashioned a very grand film, but one that relies heavily on the appeal of the performers and the material in order to look past what they're being asked to do and how they're doing it. For everything that's done well equally there's another that's simply overdone, and what's left is probably a example of butchery. A cast let down in a musical where the music was clearly an afterthought for everyone involved, it's definitely a misfire, but it's got just enough going for it so that it's not a waste of time. It's just a shame it was done like this and this was the result.