***1/2 (out of four)
Aside from “Newsies,” I don’t prefer musicals. I still know a good one when I see it, and the first big-screen musical version of “Les Miserables” is a very good one.
The first-time-ever nature of the musical adaptation—Victor Hugo’s classic 19th century novel has been adapted as a movie and TV show about 500 times, most recently in the average 1998 edition—more than justifies its existence. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to film the performers singing live, as opposed to the ultra-artificial, over-produced “Glee” style, works wonders for intimacy. As the characters sing nearly all the verbal communication, the performances in “Les Miserables” explode with feeling.
Well, not quite all of them. Russell Crowe makes a mild Inspector Javert, largely because the warmth of his singing voice dilutes the character’s rigidity into compassion. He’s a less-than-firm foil for Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the legendary, long-incarcerated hero who spends his life working to redeem incidents of theft after a priest refuses to turn him in. Going from gaunt and bearded to his usual dignified self, Jackman’s an excellent navigator of Valjean’s journey, and the marvels don’t stop there. Anne Hathaway, very good though occasionally a little too actress-y as single-mother-turned-prostitute Fantine, delivers a show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream.” And you can actually hear hearts shatter in the theater during Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own,” chronicling Eponine's unrequited love for Marius (Eddie Redmayne, bringing strength to a role that needs it as he leads protests and falls for Fantine’s daughter, Cosette [Amanda Seyfried].)
The first third of this two-and-a-half-hour film moves swiftly, muting emotions amid a pace that flows from one song to the next to the next. Yet if you think a musical can’t make you feel something, or if on-the-nose lyrics can never resonate, “Les Miserables” is the movie to change your mind. Whether it’s Hathaway registering Fantine’s anger as hope tears into nothingness or Redmayne and Barks collaborating on the gorgeous “A Little Fall of Rain,” it’s hard to deny several moments that showcase the musical form in top condition.
After all these years, “Les Miserables” resounds as people are challenged to move within different eras of their lives, through rights and wrongs, lessons and atonement. That many will die for a cause is 100 percent clear. What I have still wonder, though: Why doesn’t Jean Valjean ever find a significant other? You’d think the mayor would have plenty of pull in town.
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