It's an interesting juxtaposition: the grimy realism of urban Paris, circa 1815-32, and the beauty of a soaring musical score by Claude-Michel Schönberg.
Director Tom Hooper's movie version of the stage musical “Les Misérables” makes full use of both (was tooth care really this bad back then?), plus a star-studded cast that proves worth the price for its acting skills.
They're a mostly pleasant surprise as singers too, particularly considering the singing was filmed live — not, as it usually is, recorded first and lip-synced or dubbed in post-production. (Orchestration, however, was recorded later).
Yes, Russell Crowe can sing. Maybe not as polished in phrasing and shaping notes as Hugh Jackman, but strong and clear and on pitch.
Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a convict who has fled parole to make a new life. Crowe is Jauvert, a police inspector obsessed with returning Valjean to prison. They are the central characters in this sweeping story, based on Victor Hugo's 1862 masterpiece French novel.
Hooper (“The King's Speech”) opens with a visually remarkable montage of the wretched-poor, then prison laborers dragging a huge wooden ship into drydock. It's Valjean's last day of 17 years in prison after stealing bread to keep his sister's baby alive (14 of those years were for escape attempts). Jauvert is there to remind him he won't escape his past, or parole.
Soon, though, Valjean does escape, reinventing himself as a respected mayor and businessman after a conversion of the soul.
Soon, too, you realize Hooper will bring the same combination of panoramic sweep and close-up intimacy to each phase of the story. He zooms from a close-up of Valjean's tortured face to a receding shot revealing a stunning mountaintop abbey.
On the streets of Paris, he similarly zooms up from the barricades of a public anti-monarchy uprising to an overhead shot like something from a satellite, revealing a maze of winding streets.
The list of laudable supporting players is long: Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (“Sweeney Todd”) as the Thénardiers, repulsive, crooked innkeepers who are abusive wards to tiny Cosette; Eddie Redmayne (“My Week With Marilyn”) in terrific voice as young rebel Marius, who falls for adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia”); new face Samantha Barks as the Thénardiers' daughter, Éponine, who's in love with Marius (superb singing “On My Own”); Aaron Tveit (“Gossip Girl”) as rebel leader Enjolras (great singing also).
Crowe does a creditable job as hard-hearted Jauvert, who several times is shown walking along the edge atop tall buildings as he sings (nice vocals on “Stars”). More than dizzying if you're afraid of heights.
But the movie is dominated by the deeply moving performances of Jackman as pure-hearted Valjean and Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette's self-sacrificing single mother, who is forced into prostitution to keep Cosette alive.
Jackman impresses on the iconic (and painfully high) “Bring Him Home,” but his best musical moment may be when he sings “Suddenly,” a beautiful new tune written for the movie.
Hathaway simply breaks your heart with her tear-stained “I Dreamed a Dream,” making her a frontrunner for the supporting-actress Oscar.
This isn't a prettified version of period street life. It makes the screen version of “Oliver” seem stagey by comparison. The gritty realities Hooper emphasizes in the visuals, combined with the very unreal sung-through script, creates a new experience for this period costume piece — one “Les Misérables” fans are likely to applaud heartily.
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