As its redemptive hero toils on a chain gang, traverses a mountain, trudges through sewers and enters a revolutionary barricade, (among other intense trials), the movie musical “Les Miserables” is a zero-subtlety spectacle for the Occupy age and the current Oscar-campaign climes.
But it also is a risk-taking and frequently affecting movie that sings its not entirely artificial heart out.
Directed by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) and adapted from the Cameron Mackintosh-produced Broadway sensation based on Victor Hugo’s massive novel, the film differs from most movie musicals: It is entirely sung, rather than sung and spoken, and sung live by the actors rather than prerecorded and lip-synced.
The results, like a considerable amount of the film, have rough aspects but contain crucial emotional goods.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, who, in 1815, is a bearded chain-gang convict sentenced 19 years prior for stealing bread. He is released but breaks parole and consequently triggers the relentless pursuit of the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe).
A bishop’s kindness inspires Valjean to abandon his thieving ways. He becomes a respectable mayor and a loving father to Cosette, the young daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a dying cast-out factory worker who sells her hair, her teeth and her body to survive.
The grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a revolutionary involved in the 1832 uprising. In the barricade, Valjean encounters Javert and demonstrates impressive inner character.
Additional heroics, including the famed sewer episode, solidify Valjean’s salvation.
Hooper serves up ample spectacle – CGI scenery, ambitious theatrical staging, Dickensian poverty – which sometimes eclipses the characters.
The Valjean-Javert tension, already compromised by mismatched performances of musical-theater-versed Jackman and the more limited Crowe, particularly suffers.
Additionally, Hooper and four screenwriters devote excessive time to Seyfried’s Cosette, a bland character who serves primarily as an object of fatherly and romantic affection.
But there is enough here, from the gritty Parisian streets to the contemporary appeal of the student uprising, that hooks, and holds, viewers.
Echoing his “King’s Speech” achievements, Hooper makes the material moving and human simply by putting the camera on his able actors and letting them work. The live-singing approach, once you get used to the super-close-ups accompanying it, yields an intimacy and emotional charge.
Jackman, who can sing and act, is an ideal anchor. Hathaway, whose Fantine exists largely to personify misery, delivers the quality, vibrantly, and the showstopper “I Dreamed a Dream” – though you wish the TB-stricken Fantine’s movie-star glow were toned down.
Redmayne, soulfully singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” also stands out.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, playing the swindling innkeepers and singing “Master of the House,” provide colorful comic relief.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried
Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Tom Hooper
Running time 2 hours 32 minutes