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Movie review: 'Les Miserables' plays big emotions in music
Director Tom Hooper, whose historical drama “A King's Speech” won four Oscars including best picture and director, crafts another crowd-pleaser with his big-screen adaptation of the beloved musical “Les Miserables.”
Emphasis on the “big.” As close and cozy as Hooper made his 2010 period piece about the friendship between Britain's King George VI and his speech therapist, his rendition of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's pop-opera is appropriately sweeping and epic.
After all, the sung-through musical — almost every word is sung rather than spoken — is about big ideas like love, obsession, redemption, freedom, sacrifice, courage, duty, forgiveness and revolution.
By tasking his sterling cast with singing the famous songs live on set rather than recording them in a studio and then lip-syncing for the cameras, Hooper gets to the emotion behind these universal themes. The resulting musical numbers aren't pristinely sung, but they are fully attuned to the character's feelings.
When Anne Hathaway's ill-fated prostitute Fantine croons the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream,” it's through streaming tears and gulping sobs, and the close-up shots give a heartbreakingly intimate insight into her pain and disillusionment.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've never seen a stage version of “Les Miserables,” nor have I read the 1862 Victor Hugo novel on which the musical was based. But I was given a copy of the original Broadway cast album when I was in high school and enthusiastically wallowed to the tune of “On My Own” during my first big breakup.
The details of the story were unknown to me, though, and Hooper's film does a reasonably adroit job guiding the uninitiated through the sprawling storyline.
In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is finishing a brutally labor-intensive 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread and attempted jailbreak. Perhaps because of his uncommon strength, self-righteous police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) labels him a dangerous man, reluctantly releases him on parole and predicts he will soon have Valjean back in the work camp.