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.
Required to show papers everywhere declaring himself an ex-convict, Valjean can't find work and teeters on the brink of starvation. An encounter with a benevolent bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean on Broadway and in London) inspires the former prisoner to tear up his papers and start a new life as an honest man. But Valjean's choice to skip out on his parole prompts Javert to become obsessed with hunting down and reimprisoning him. The fear of discovery and longing for real freedom also defines Valjean's life, even when he adopts young Cosette (Isabelle Allen), Fantine's illegitimate daughter.
While Hathaway and Jackman are earning awards buzz for their performances, Amanda Seyfried effectively luminesces and hits some startlingly high notes as the young adult Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne exudes boyish charm as Marius, the revolutionary who falls in love with her at first sight.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide hard-edged but much-needed comic relief as the thieving innkeepers who housed Cosette as a girl. But Samantha Barks nearly steals the film as their daughter Eponine, who is in love with Marius. Barks played the part on the London stage in 2010-11, and her “On My Own” is every bit as affecting as Hathaway's “I Dreamed a Dream.”
The movie musical explores the ways people's lives intersect, but it probably takes the notion a bit too far. After all, more than 2 ½ hours is a long time to spend in a story crammed with enough poverty, death and tragedy to be called “Les Miserables,” even if Hooper pulls off the uplifting finale. — Brandy McDonnellMOVIE REVIEW “Les Miserables” PG-13 2:37
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks. (Suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)