By TIM MILLER
Whether it’s Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean singing about second chances or Anne Hathaway’s Fantine singing about broken dreams, the emotions on display in Tom Hooper’s “Les Miserables” hit you with the force of a hurricane.
I don’t know how director Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) and his cast put so much intensity into this adaptation of the blockbuster musical while avoiding any histrionics, but they do. This tale of heartbreak and cruelty, of compassion and rebirth, of the different forms love takes, of so much more, is stunningly beautiful.
It’s filled with tears, but they’re genuine, seemingly coming directly from the heart. Jackman, Hathaway and others in the cast flawlessly blend acting with their singing — performed live rather than dubbed — of the musical’s brilliant score. They dig deep, fearlessly letting it all out with no apparent self-consciousness, and the results are sublime.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, the story is set in early-19th-century France. It begins with Valjean finishing up a 19-year prison term for stealing bread. He’s been under the thumb of the guard Javert (Russell Crowe), who will continue as his nemesis as the years pass.
Once Valjean is released, his tribulations continue. To begin a new life, he must break parole, which sets Javert — obsessed with his capture — on his trail. “Les Miserables” isn’t focused just on the chase, however, but on the people and events he encounters in the meantime.
There’s the factory girl Fantine (Hathaway), unjustly banished to the streets and a life of desperation; Fantine’s innocent daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a young girl; Amanda Seyfried as a young woman), who becomes Valjean’s adopted daughter; Marius (Eddie Redmayne), an idealist and revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette from afar; Eponine (Samantha Barks, from the Broadway cast), the poor young woman who pines for Marius but knows he loves Cosette (and Cosette loves him).
Eponine’s incorrigible, thieving parents, Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Madame Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter), provide welcome comic relief from the otherwise earnest proceedings.
Through all of these characters, and the songs they sing, so much is explored: the tragedy of poverty, the victimization of innocents, broken dreams, self-sacrifice, strict adherence to law, notions of duty, the rewards of forgiveness, the pursuit of ideals, a belief in God and heaven — leading to Valjean’s realization that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
The cast is exceptional. Some might find Crowe’s portrayal — from his singing to his posture — awkward and stiff compared to the others, but I’d argue this is appropriate, given the extreme rigidity of his character’s outlook on life and justice. Javert sees things in black and white, to the letter of the law; he’s incapable of dealing with life’s complexities in any other way. He’s so cold and merciless most of the time that it’s difficult to sympathize with him, and yet he, like the others, is a victim of some kind. In his case, he’s a victim of himself.
The other performances are easier to appreciate. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter make a funny pair, and Redmayne and Barks make the most of their turns in the spotlight with devastatingly poignant songs of loss.
But the standouts are Jackman, who expresses a wide range of powerful emotions, sometimes quietly, sometimes with fury, throughout the film, and Hathaway, whose rendition of Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” makes for one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever experienced on the screen.