After decades of promises and delays, the musical version of "Les Miserables" has arrived, and it was worth every minute of the wait. Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") marries propulsive, character-driven drama to scenes of jaw-dropping spectacle and tender intimacy. The Broadway score's indelible songs, recorded live on set by a dream cast, have a dizzying, electric immediacy no studio-tuned rendition could equal. Victor Hugo's tale of abject squalor and undying love, calamitous mobs and barricades, idealistic self-sacrifice and cold moralism has become a film of almost inexpressible beauty.
We know the story, of course. In 19th-century France, fugitive convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), brutalized by two decades at hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, reforms after a soul-stirring encounter with a kindly priest. He becomes a pillar of his community, and when his onetime worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) dies in disgrace, he takes her faraway daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own. But he lives in fear that implacable Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) will see through his respectable new identity and return him to prison.
The movie isn't a tear factory. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter have a boisterous music-hall energy as Cosette's cunning guardians, tearing up the scenery with irresistible comic brio.
The overall tone, though, is drama played straight. Valjean has to crawl through a lot of sewage, literal and moral, to survive. The duets between Jackman, singing high from the head, and Crowe, rumbling from the chest, define their characters swiftly and powerfully. Each man is sealed off, one by secrets, the other by rigid ethics, yet the actors convey volumes with a glance or a note.
The cast is inspired, delivering showstopping arias in tight, sustained closeups.
The death scenes here are fulsomely emotional -- shattering, frankly -- but never cross the line into kitsch. It's a high-risk/high-reward gamble that pays off handsomely. The players never milk the moment for pathos. They don't need to. The piercing sincerity of this stupendous, heart-wrenching epic would move even the most jaded cynic. See it and weep.
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