Jean Valjean (Jackman), imprisoned for 19 years for a minor offence, is paroled but perpetually shadowed by Inspector Javert (Crowe). When he takes in the foundling daughter of the tragic Fantine (Hathaway), he finds a reason to keep his freedom.
Les Miserables opens big. The camera sweeps over gilded, bulbous warships, blasted by coastal waves, to the hundreds of miserable wretches inching one of these monsters into the Toulon dry dock on waterlogged ropes. This vast chain gang sings Look Down in a rumbling bass that’s close to a dirge, and the tone is set. This is not the sort of musical where people dance their cares away, but one where people’s cares seem to rip songs from their throats. Through all that follows, the moments of levity and romance as well as the suffering, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s juggernaut of a musical never fails to take its subject matter seriously, its raw, brutal edge in tune with Victor Hugo’s melodrama of the downtrodden and destitute.
Hugh Jackman, matching Jean Valjean’s fabled strength, carries the plot on his shoulders. Only he and Russell Crowe’s Javert remain constants through the 17 years of the film’s plot, and only Valjean really grows during that time, since Javert’s inflexibility is his defining trait.
We first meet Valjean as a convict, making futile demands that his jailer respect him as a fellow human being — only to be rebuffed by the didactic Javert. On parole he meets only rejection and prejudice, descending into animal-like desperation and spitting bitterness before a miraculous second chance sees Valjean resolve to match the faith shown in him in the film’s most emotionally complex scene. Righteous fury rages with a rekindled sense of virtue; wounded pride and a thirst for justice compete with hope of redemption, and somehow from the conflagration a morally upright man emerges.
As with all the film’s high emotion, this is communicated entirely in song, sung live on set and with veins frequently popping from the effort. Hooper’s commitment to live performance no doubt added hugely to the stress of the shoot, but in return for a few wobbly high notes he gets a unique, visceral punch. The vocals aren’t as flawless as, say, Alfie Boe managed onstage — Jackman struggles with the famously difficult Bring Him Home, and at times Crowe wobbles into rock stylings — but the drama is stronger for it.
Not everything is so successful. The Paris soundstages feel small and poky, and different angles of shot might have avoided a sometimes stagey feel and the jarring contrast with the outdoor scenes, which deliver a glorious Delacroix look and scale. The sprawling structure of the show, too, means that high emotion breaks in wave after wave without reprieve, cinematic close-ups magnifying the impact. At its best, that effect sees Anne Hathaway reclaim I Dreamed A Dream from Susan Boyle and ruin the song for all who follow her. Angry, defiant and broken all at once, it is a definitive performance, and though her part amounts to barely a montage and this one sublime solo, don’t be surprised to see her on an Oscar podium come February.
But after that emotional wallop, the love story between Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Valjean’s ward, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), can’t overcome her character’s inherent drippiness, leaving you impatient to get to the revolutionary stuff when students led by the idealistic Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) fight a hopeless uprising in the people’s name and Javert encounters Valjean once more. When these big moments arrive, the cast rise with full-throated determination and deliver a musical unlike any other.
Occasionally, like its characters, ragged around the edges, this nevertheless rings with all the emotion and power of the source and provides a new model for the movie musical.