With the exception of The Producers and The Book of Mormon, there probably hasn't been a modern, non-Andrew Lloyd Webber-related stage musical as beloved as Les Misérables. The adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling novel of redemption and revolution is the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history, and at the time this Tom Hooper-directed film version hit screens, the London production was still going strong after nearly 30 years in the West End.
The story follows former prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who, after being released from the watchful eye of police officer Javert (Russell Crowe), is unable to find work because of his status as an ex-convict. He eventually steals from a local church, but when apprehended, the priest claims that Valjean was given the valuables. This triggers a change in Valjean, and he constructs a new identity for himself as a pillar of society and a local businessman. Years later, he adopts a young girl named Cosette, whose mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a former employee of his, became a prostitute and died a horrible death in the gutters after being fired. As the years progress and the French Revolution begins to foment, a grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls for a passionate revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), while Javert begins to close in again on Valjean's secret past.
For this movie version of the musical, Hooper made the creative decision to, whenever possible, have the performers sing their parts live (rather than lip-synch to prerecorded tracks) as they were filmed. From a practical standpoint, that means that there are tons of close-ups in this picture. They are so prevalent that Hooper's film tells this inherently grand and epic tale with an unusual intimacy.
Such an approach makes the performances emotional in a way few movie musicals have ever been. Hathaway gets the show's big number, "I Dreamed a Dream," and because she's performing the song live, it works as a monologue as much as it does as a song. She's acting the song as well as singing it, and it's a powerful sequence; her commitment to the material is forceful. It's the kind of scene that wins actors awards, and it's also the moment that pays the most dividends for Hooper's unusual creative choice.
However, such an in-your-face visual scheme will also repel viewers already predisposed to having little tolerance for the source material. It's a novel approach, but it's designed to accentuate the aspect of musicals many people dislike the most -- namely, the singing. The editing of the film is simplistic, which benefits the performances, but it will bore those who have checked out of the songs.
While Hathaway deserves the most praise out of anyone in the cast, nobody is an embarrassment. Hugh Jackman is excellent in his early numbers; Samantha Barks is heartbreaking as Éponine, the other woman in love with Marius; and the duo of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter couldn't be more perfectly cast as an innkeeper and his wife, the only comic relief in this otherwise determinedly serious story.
To be sure, this Les Misérables will not be to everyone's taste, but it's hard to deny the audacity of Hooper's emotionally intense approach, and impossible to forget Anne Hathaway delivering arguably the definitive version of a song that can easily be described as a modern musical-theater classic.