It’s not the complete Broadway musical nor is it meant to be, though it has most of the songs (slightly shortened) and comes admirably close to capturing its heartbreaking grandeur. What director Tom Hooper accomplishes with this movie rendition of the greatly loved stage version is to open it up to the visual sweep that cinema can offer. At which he succeeds, often spectacularly. Beginning with the daunting sight of a huge frigate being rowed ashore by convict labor, Les Misérables immerses the viewer in a canvas as sprawling and convincing as even Victor Hugo could’ve imagined.
One of the convicts is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a good man who was cruelly sentenced for stealing bread. He fatefully comes to the attention of the maniacal Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), beginning an epic conflict that will haunt both men for decades to come. An experienced musical performer, Jackman is more impressive for his acting than his voice (which is able and affecting), illustrating Valjean’s journey from wild, hateful animal to a solid, benevolent citizen to a world-weary penitent with grace and fervor. Though Crowe’s rough-hewn singing is often wincingly bad, his specialties of inherent decency, and tenacity, serve the character extremely well. And Anne Hathaway as the tragic seamstress Fantine is a revelation: She wrings every nuance of pathos out of her songs with startling range and agility. To even more heart-wrenching effect, all the singing is performed live.
Many of the smaller roles are equally astonishing, including the two youngest characters: Fantine’s abused little daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), and a boy-child revolutionary (Daniel Huttlestone). Only with the villainous Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (predictably, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) does Hooper go overboard: The characters are show-offish grotesque, and detract from the lavish realism that keeps even the most bravura scenes at plausible heights.
Director of the Oscar winning The King’s Speech, Hooper magnificently fills out the 1800s turmoil with material from the book. And this is both the film’s blessing and its curse: Les Misérables is a long and relentless tale of oppression, and the texturing of that trajectory (as when Fantine has her teeth forcibly removed) can be exhaustingly grim. At least for some moviegoers—for fans of the musical, the additional grimacing should hardly be a deterrent.