LES MISERABLES: What All the Fuss Is About

in
January 7, 2013

***1/2 (out of four)

One great thing about musicals -- they get to be over the top.

The notion of everyone bursting into unanimous song is very well suited to larger-than-life material -- joy, despair, sin, repentance, loss, mercy, heaven, selfless sacrifice and love at first sight.

If that’s your cup of tea -- and if you don’t mind watching people sing for nearly three hours -- then make your way to the splendid new film of “Les Miserables.”

Until last Saturday, I had no familiarity with this tale, having neither read Victor Hugo’s massive novel nor seen the musical -- or any of the numerous films.

So now I know what all that fuss is about.

Directed by Tom Hooper -- Oscar-winner for “The King’s Speech” -- this “Les Mis” is a knockout blend of gripping story, sizzling tunes, stellar visuals and a dandy cast:

Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne -- among many others.

Jackman is extraordinary, proving once and for all that he really is a top-tier star, suited for the kinds of meaty, plus-size roles that once went to Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas.

Hathaway is also terrific, having lost a lot of weight (and a lot of hair!) to play an impoverished single mom in early nineteenth-century France.

Crowe is not a born singer, but he pulls it off respectably -- the more so because the actor’s legendary gravitas is perfect for his hard-nosed inspector on a merciless quest to track down long-sought fugitive (Jackman).

Redmayne also sings beautifully -- but the other strong voices are less familiar:

Youngsters Isabelle Allen (as young Cosette) and Daniel Huttlestone (as the aspiring revolutionary Gavroche) are both stars to watch for.

So is Samantha Barks, who already played Eponine onstage and nearly steals the film with her spectacular singing and acting.

Indeed, the movie is loaded with performers who can act while singing and sing while acting, often at peak intensity in both cases -- and with a lot more close-ups than any stage performance would require.

Similarly, the film opens up the play with sweeping vistas of post-revolutionary Paris, including a memorable prologue in a cavernous dry dock, a grueling trek through the city’s famous sewers and stomach-churning scenes of poverty that even Dickens might’ve struggled to describe.

Yet the film’s triumph is Hugo’s brilliant plot -- not only in its intricate and satisfying structure, but also in the way it highlights mercy and forgiveness over legalism and justice.

In the same vein, the musical’s larger-than-life approach allows bold reflection on divine providence and grace that might seem corny or overblown in a different medium.

I can’t compare the new “Les Mis” to the tale’s many other incarnations; but if they’re half this good, there’s no doubt why the story is still around after 150 years -- and why it still works so brilliantly.