A sprawling epic that's both grand and unexpectedly intimate, director Tom Hooper's star-studded "Les Miserables" does justice to the smash hit stage musical in its first big screen adaptation. Several non-singing incarnations of Victor Hugo's 1862 opus have been made through the years, but this impassioned pop opera version has been touching people's hearts since its London debut in 1985, and finally makes it to the big screen in a big way.
The complicated yet affecting story focuses on the plight of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner 24601, who is released in 1815 but hunted by the relentless police officer Javert (Russell Crowe) after breaking parole. He makes a new life for himself, becoming a factory owner and town leader. An employee, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is tossed out into the streets, enduring horrors in order to support her daughter Cosette, who is being raised by the unscrupulous Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen).
After her death, Valjean cares for Cosette, and as a young woman (Amanda Seyfried), she falls in love with student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is also secretly loved by the Thenardiers' daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks).
Now it's the June Revolution of 1832, where leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the irrepressible street urchin Gavroche (Danielle Huddlestone) fight against unsurmountable odds. More suffering, loss and life-changing events occur.
The iconic roles are perfectly cast, with Hugh Jackman delivering a powerful, towering performance as Valjean. He now owns the role, and his superior musical skills are showcased well, particularly the "Bring Him Home" showstopper. Anne Hathaway is incredibly moving in the pivotal but small role as tragic Fantine, and she will wrestle every tear the audience has in them. She absolutely nails the signature "I Dreamed a Dream" with a stunning display of control and emotion.
Jackman and Hathaway should be on the shortlist for Oscar nominations. Russell Crowe is fine as the intense Javert, and while not that known for singing, he was in a rock band after all, and doesn't embarrass himself here. His "Stars" rendition is as bombastic as it ought to be.
Young stage veterans Eddie Redmayne (Tony winner for "Red") and Aaron Tveit (Tony nominated for "Next to Normal" and star of "Catch Me If You Can") are impressive as the noble student revolutionaries, with Redmayne wringing all the emotion out of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Amanda Seyfried ("Mamma Mia") also sings beautifully.
The biggest breakthrough, perhaps, is Samantha Barks as Eponine. She makes her film debut but is the sole main performer from the London production of "Les Miserables" (and is Eponine in the 2010 concert version on DVD). Her fervent "On My Own" is exquisite. But spunky tyke Daniel Huddlestone will hopefully have a successful career for he is a force of nature to be reckoned with as Gavroche.
Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean, appears as the bishop. While Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen fit the comical yet sinister Thenardiers, their theatrics are reminiscent of their last movie musical, "Sweeney Todd."
Hooper, who won an Oscar for "The King's Speech," focuses on close-ups while pulling back the camera only on occasion to reveal the street scenes. The close-ups give the film an intimacy that the stage version has sometimes lacked. This camera manuevering worked for me, but might be distracting to others. After seeing the stirring stage production three times, the musical remains complex and screenwriter William Nicolson skillfully streamlined it for clarity -- which is what was needed for optimum enjoyment.
Hooper also made the actors sing live, not lip-sync to recorded music -- and it makes a world of difference. It's sincere, raw and thrilling.
In the pantheon of famous musicals made into movies, this "Les Miserables" is one of the best, and can stand on its own as a dazzling work.
What Doesn't Work
The magnificent "One Day More" that closes Act One has always been a rousing crowd-pleaser. Here, Hooper concentrates on the individuals rather than a collective number, and I missed that adrenaline rush of unity.
The new song "Suddenly" is unnecessary, and doesn't add to Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil-Herbert Kretzmer's source material.
3 1/2 stars out of 4
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks
Director: Tom Hooper
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.