I am not a big fan of the stage musical Les Miserables.  I reviewed it while I was a theater critic living in Los Angeles many years ago. I was very disappointed because everyone seemed to love it, and it was supposed to be an important part of the pop canon.  Furthermore it was a “serious” musical.  I couldn’t keep the characters straight and I couldn’t figure out what happened during the action or transition sequences. 

 However the film adaption obliterated my tepid feeling I had toward the stage musical.  The film is an incredible experience.  Directed by Oscar winner Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) Les Miserables is epic and amazing.  Nixing the previous policy of recording songs in a separate controlled studio then lip synching the very same song before the cameras later, song are performed and recorded at the same time.  This allows for a spontaneity and authenticity rarely seen in musical performances and the cast for the most part delivers.

 No one delivers a better performance than Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the doomed single mother who must resort to prostitution to take care of her daughter. Hathaway’s rendition of the signature solo “I dreamed a dream” is some of the best five minutes I have ever seen on film. It is so real, so powerful, so mesmerizing that it has critics scrambling for adjectives to describe it. Audience members were literally sobbing after she is finished and in some theaters spontaneous applause has erupted.

 Hugh Jackman plays the lead, Jean ValJean, the man at the center of the film and the story’s moral compass.  Jackman is simply terrific.  Jackman’s Broadway chops (he has a Tony after all) show as he sings his way through this musical journey flawlessly.  Hitting every emotional note perfectly and feeling everything he sings, he manages to sound fantastic even when his character endures relentless obstacles, hardships and tragedies. It’s hard to believe that Wolverine has so much depth, and gentleness. We have always known Jackman could convey strength on screen, but here he colors it with real humanity and vulnerability.

 Other great standouts are Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Epinone.  Redmayne in particular is a gem.  I saw him last year in My Week with Marilyn and had no idea he could sing. He holds his own in the famous “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” elegiac song.

 Almost all the cast members are perfect, except Russell Crowe who is embarrassingly bad as Javert. Crowe, a previous Oscar winner, simply cannot sing.  Well he cannot sing well enough to carry a major role in a musical that is almost without dialogue.  He especially looks weak when he is in scenes opposite Jackman, or any other actor who can sing well (all of them, but him).  Just as there is a major consensus that Anne Hathaway is phenomenal there is equally unanimous dissent over Rowe’s attempt at musical performance. Particularly disappointing are his two solos.

 Les Miserables is a great experience, but not necessarily a great movie.  In Hooper’s attempt to capture the best talents of the cast, he shoots most of the songs in intimate close-ups. Admittedly this is interesting and creates a great intensity which works for the passionate material, but every angle for every heavy song seems to be the same. There are also a few times when I felt that a scene was cut short because the song was over.  In musical theater the scene is the song, but in film which typically deals with realism, and the actors are playing naturalistically, some of these scenes seem like they are cut off before their full dramatic potential is met. Hooper is blessed with a great cast, one of the best for a single film I have seen in a long time, so why does he constantly feel the need to make us aware of the camera.  The Camera is not the star of this show, the actors are.

I have other quibbles too, but even I cannot deny the sheer power of this film to evoke emotion, empathy, hope and awe.   Let’s face it, the cast, (except Crowe) is superb and not other recent film uses music so dramatically and effectively.