Tom Hooper's extravaganza, big-screen telling of the beloved musical Les Miserables is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you've Felt Something — powerfully and repeatedly — until you've touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own.
It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle. But at the same time it's hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper's efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There's a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo's 19th-century France.
Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing The King's Speech, winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint.
But he also does something clever in asking his actors sing live on camera, rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes. The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times, and that closeness highlights self-indulgent tendencies, but the meaning behind lyrics that have become so well-known shines through anew. You'd probably heard I Dreamed a Dream, the plaintive ballad of the doomed prostitute Fantine, sung countless times even before Susan Boyle unfortunately popularized it again in 2009. An emaciated and shorn Anne Hathaway finds fresh pain and regret in those words because her rendition is choked with sobs, because it's not perfect.
That's definitely part of the fascination of this version of Les Miserables: seeing how these A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing. Hugh Jackman, as the hero and former prisoner Jean Valjean, is a musical theatre veteran and seems totally in command (although the higher part of his register gets a bit nasal and strained). Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine's daughter, Cosette, whom Jean Valjean adopts, already had proven she can sing in Mamma Mia! but hits some freakishly high notes here — which isn't always a good thing. Eddie Redmayne is a lovely surprise as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. And of course, Samantha Barks gives an effortless performance as the lonely and doomed Eponine — everyone here is doomed, it's Les Miserables — a role she'd performed on the London stage.
How you feel walking out of this film two and a half hours later will depend a great deal on what you brought into it going in. Maybe you listened to the soundtrack fanatically in high school and still know all the words to On My Own. Perhaps you were thrilled to see the show on stage during a vacation to New York (and there's a nice little cameo from Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from the London and Broadway productions). You will probably be in far better shape than someone coming into this cold.
You may even cry when key characters die, even though you know full well what fate awaits them. There's no shame in that — we're all friends here.
What: Les Miserables
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Running time: 158 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements