Glorious, stirring "Les Misérables" soars as feel-bad holiday movie

Les Misérables (2012) 
158 min., rated PG-13.

"Les Misérables" is not small or low-key. It's manipulative, it's operatic, it's overblown, it's exhausting, and yet it still earns every tear it wants you to shed as a lump-in-your-throat, chills-down-your-spine musical opus. Based on the 1862 novel by French playwright Victor Hugo, the beloved stage production first opened 32 years ago in Paris, soon became a West End sensation, then hit Broadway, and is now hailed as the fourth longest-running show in musical theatre history. "Les Misérables" has been reworked to film enough times as a non-musical adaptation that it was only a matter of time until the material received the "sung-through musical" treatment. In what is a risky undertaking, director Tom Hooper (he of 2010's Best Picture-winning "The King's Speech") embraces the theatricality of the steadfast stage phenomenon in this big-screen adaptation, a glorious, lavishly mounted epic tragedy.

The time is 1815 and the place is France. Sentenced to 19 years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister's sick son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), prisoner 24601, is granted parole. He becomes the prosperous town mayor, but will never be a totally free man, as he's kept under watch by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). At the factory owned by the former prisoner, there is Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who's ratted out for sending money to her illegitimate daughter and then fired. With nothing left to live for, except her daughter, she tries making ends meet as a prostitute and selling her teeth and hair, all the way until her tragic death. A selfless man, Valjean adopts Fantine's waifish daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who has suffered working as a kind of Cinderella for an unscrupulous couple of innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). Nine more years pass, and Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne) spots Cosette (taken over by Amanda Seyfried) from across the street, without knowing that the Thénardiers' daughter, Éponine (Samantha Barks), has loved him all along. Meanwhile, as Javert makes it his mission to pursue Valjean, everyone finds themselves in the midst of the 1832 revolution. Hilarity does not ensue.

In what might be the biggest selling point or turnoff, Hooper has taken an ambitious gamble in having the actors sing live on camera with piano accompaniment. As opposed to the traditional method of screen performers lip-synching to prerecorded vocal tracks, the decision does pay off, lending the story more immediacy, spontaneity, authenticity, and emotional weight. The "live" approach gives more leeway to the performers to be in the moment and accentuates the unpolished lack of gloss and perfection. Hooper's give-and-take direction ping-pongs between big, sweeping (and digitally augmented) spectacle and in-your-face intimacy, with a firm handle on mise en scène that alternately breathes and constricts without coming across too stagy or claustrophobic. Everyone is shot in such tight, up-close-and-personal proximity that you can feel the deeper meaning of the music. Danny Cohen's cinematography ("The King's Speech") is majestic and intimate, and stellar period tech detailsart direction, production design, set decoration, costumes, and make-up—all capture the grime and squalor. 

More of a heavy opera than an energetic musical, "Les Misérables" is based on performance and storytelling through song. Singing to the mezzanine, the actors all put forth great effort in holding a note, and they had better because the entire movie is spoken in song ("Yes, it's true, there's a child/And the child is my daughter/And her father abandoned us, leaving us flat"). Carrying the film on his back, Jackman is powerful and tender as the selfless Valjean, with an arc that might just fill your eyes with tears. In just the first half, a shorn Hathaway's devastating, show-stopping solo of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a powerhouse. The actress not only proves her musical worth but showcases her most impressive and demanding work in a short amount of screen time, giving it all she's got and trembling with raw emotion. Shot in one unbroken close-up on Hathaway's hopeless face, it's an unforgettably plaintive and poignant moment that will shatter your heart into a million pieces and force the Academy to seal their votes tomorrow.

First appearing in a Cap'n Crunch uniform as Javert, Crowe is not on equal footing as the rest of the actor-singers, but with experience as a frontman for rock bands, he has strong enough pipes for the bravado of Javert. As Cosette, Seyfried trills with a lovely vibrato, but she's saddled with one of the more underwritten characters. 10-year-old Allen is more memorable as her younger counterpart (also the literal poster child of the play and film). As Marius, Redmayne quivers with passion in his voice. Having played the same role of Éponine on the London stage and for the 25th Anniversary Concert, Barks is more effortless, coming off as the standout in this love triangle and showcasing her angelic vocals. Her lovesick solo, "On My Own," through the rainy cobblestone streets is beautiful. Cohen and Carter ham it up as the brassy, much-needed comic relief, and their "Master of the House" is a fun production number.

A few issues with the film most likely stem from the source material, even if screenwriter William Nicholson (2000's "Gladiator") remains slavishly faithful. On stage, the performance has an intermission, so narrative momentum is more forgivable; when the same material is told through a lens where storytelling needs structure and characters should be more than pawns, it's easier to nitpick. As "Les Misérables" switches to its second half, with less attention on Jean Valjean and more on barricading the streets and the rushed love-at-first-sight romance (which is a non-starter and comparatively less involving), the plotting feels choppy and the pacing grows distinctly uneven. But just before the story might begin to wilt, Valjean becomes the heart and soul, with Fantine haunting the proceedings like a guardian angel. Judged as a film, as it has to be, this $61-million adaptation is not without its flaws and probably won't change the predetermined minds of musical non-fans. In the scheme of things, when one acknowledges its cumulative impact, "Les Miz" (the vernacular term for theatre brats) is grand, stirring, and overwhelming in a good way, the feel-bad movie of the holiday season.

Grade: B +