On the road to redemption: French ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) takes in young Cosette (Isabelle Allen) in "Les Miserables." / Laurie Sparham / Universal Pictures
Victor Hugo's grim, but redemptive, classic novel is given resplendent new life on the big screen.
Les Misérables (***½ out of four; rated PG-13; opens Christmas Day nationwide) is sweeping, as would be expected given the scope of the hugely popular stage musical from which it is adapted. But it's also wonderfully intimate, thanks to Tom Hooper's deft direction.
Hooper (The King's Speech) was a perfect match for the material, making exquisite use of a much bigger stage and impeccable production design for a wonderfully epic effect, juxtaposed with stirring tight close-ups.
There's a heightened accessibility to the iconic story in the way that Hooper zeroes in on the emotional performances of Anne Hathaway, superb as the tragic Fantine, and Hugh Jackman, masterful as Jean Valjean, imprisoned for almost 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. It's far and away Jackman's finest screen role.
Both Hathaway and Jackman strike perfect notes in their performances, which are nearly entirely sung. The film is essentially an operetta, with every character singing his or her lines in predominantly live vocals done on set - not dubbed in later. The result is a collection of astounding voices.
Besides the lead pair, Eddie Redmayne is a revelation as the idealistic rebel Marius, who falls in love with Fantine's daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Newcomer Samantha Barks is heartbreakingly soulful as Éponine, whose love for Marius is not returned. Russell Crowe, as the self-righteous police inspector Javert, strains somewhat with the singing, but his portrayal is appropriately forbidding.
The story, which spans 1815 to the French rebellion of 1832, is a simple but enthralling tale of love, idealism and sacrifice. Valjean is released from slave labor and inspired to turn his life around after a priest treats him with kindness and dignity. He becomes a successful businessman and mayor, but the relentless Javert is hot on his trail for violating parole. Valjean is deeply moved by the plight of Fantine, who works in his factory, but loses her job and is forced to sell her hair, teeth and body. Filled with regret, Valjean promises to care for her young daughter Cosette, as Fantine lies on her deathbed.
Valjean learns the power of selfless love by bringing up Cosette, and the young girl is given a life of privilege she would never have known. But all the while, Javert lurks, eager to bring down Valjean.
What distinguishes Les Mis and makes it so vibrant on-screen is Hooper's risky choice to have the cast sing live, wearing earpieces so they could hear a piano for tempo. (The orchestral arrangement was added later.) The singing is often appropriately raw (particularly in Fantine's dying scene), which intensifies already poignant performances.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide comic relief - perhaps more than is needed - and seem to have sallied in between takes of Sweeney Todd.
Jackman and Hathaway give Oscar-worthy performances, and Hathaway's rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is a tear-jerker if ever there was one.
For a 2½-hour movie, it's surprisingly well-paced and consistently enthralling. The look of the film is gorgeous, but Les Mis is a success primarily because of its superlative musical performances.