Based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, this epic, cinematic adaptation should attract audiences that have loved the Broadway musical over the years.
Set in squalid 19th century France, the film opens in 1815 with emaciated Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as prisoner 24601, serving 19 years at hard labor for stealing of a loaf of bread, under the watchful eye of implacable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Eventually paroled, Valjean is condemned as an unemployable ex-convict. The sympathetic Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson, who originally played Valjean on Broadway) gives him food and shelter; in return, Valjean steals the Church’s silver candlesticks. When Valjean is caught, the Bishop tells the authorities that the booty belongs to Valjean, instructing Valjean to use it to make a better life. Within eight years, Valjean becomes a wealthy factory owner, known as Monsieur Madeleine. He takes pity on single mother-turned-prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), desperately protecting her daughter, Cosette, by paying disreputable innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen). Years later, with brawny Valjean as her protective guardian/adoptive father, now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seifried) falls in love with rebellious Marius (Eddie Redmayne) during the 1832 Paris Uprising.
Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Herbert Kretzmer, it’s bombastically directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), who retains the pop opera structure with only minimal spoken dialogue. Hooper’s innovation is having the actors sing ‘live’ on the set, as opposed to recording with an orchestra beforehand; this was done only once before, unsuccessfully, by Peter Bogdanovich in the disastrous “At Long Last Love” (1975).
Exuding agony, Hugh Jackman nails Valjean’s “Soliloquy,” “Bring Him Home” and “Who Am I?” with every emotion magnified by close-ups. Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” is wrenching, assuring her major Oscar contention, echoed by Samantha Barks’ plaintive “On My Own.” Russell Crowe tentatively warbles “Stars,” while Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen romp through “Master of the House.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Les Miserables” is an anguished, unrestrained, relentlessly amplified 9, a uniquely overwhelming, even exhausting extravaganza.