No one expects gutsy filmmaking in a musical. But that's just what King's Speech Oscar winner Tom Hooper delivers in Les Misérables. The massive 1980s stage smash is adapted from Victor Hugo's even more massive 1862 novel spun around the 1832 Paris student uprising. There's no spoken dialogue! Everyone sings! All the time! For nearly three hours! Think rock opera, like the Who's Tommy. If that drives you nuts, screw off and see the stupid Twilight finale again.
What helps make Les Misérables so vibrant and thrilling onscreen is Hooper's daring decision to have his actors sing live. No mouthing the words to prerecorded songs. The actors wore earpieces to hear a piano give them tempo. A 70-piece orchestra was added later to bring out the beauty and thunder in the score, by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. The risk pays off. The singing isn't slick. It sometimes sounds raw and roughed up, which is all to the good. It sure as hell brings out the best in the actors.
A never-better Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, locked up for nearly 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. The convict known as 24601 escapes and makes a respectable life for himself as a small-town mayor. But he can't rest. Hunted relentlessly by the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean is almost caught again when he tries to help poor, doomed Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory girl who sells her hair, her teeth and her body to support her child, Cosette. A dynamite Hathaway shatters every heart when she sings how "life has killed the dream I dreamed." Her volcanic performance has Oscar written all over it.
It's up to Valjean to save Cosette from the clutches of the Thénardiers, greedy innkeepers who treat Cosette like a slave while spoiling their daughter, Éponine. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play this gruesome twosome with delicious mirth and malice. But Valjean has a job to do raising the grown Cosette (a sublime Amanda Seyfried) and worrying about her falling for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a handsome student rebel who also has Éponine (a wondrous Samantha Barks) pining vainly for his love.
Look, I'm out of breath squeezing in all this plot, and sometimes so is the movie. Plot exposition is even harder when you sing it, and I haven't even gotten into the student revolt yet or the heroic part played in it by the street urchin Gavroche (scene-stealing 12-year-old Daniel Huttlestone) and the student leader Enjolras (a stirring Aaron Tveit). But Hooper's cast is up for every challenge. Jackman and Hathaway are Academy all the way. And Crowe, who did The Rocky Horror Picture Show onstage in his youth, brings lonely grandeur to Javert's anthem, "Stars." Redmayne also deserves a piece of the awards pie for the soulful ache he brings to the love story and his lost brothers ("Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"). Besides being a feast for the eyes and ears, Les Misérables overflows with humor, heartbreak, rousing action and ravishing romance. Damn the imperfections, it's perfectly marvelous.