Dec. 21, 2012 at 6:55 PM ET
REVIEW: There are movies and then there are movie experiences. "Les Miserables" is the latter. The audience I saw it with sat in mesmerized silence through the songs, the drama, the very miniscule speaking parts. They sat quietly when the credits rolled and then applauded with fervor, as if they were seeing the show live. If a Broadway musical isn't your thing, "Les Mis" won't convert you, but if you're open to it, the filmed version doesn't let fans down. It's not subtle, it's not small, but it shouldn't be.
The musical, based of course on Victor Hugo's 1000-page-plus 150-year-old novel, does an amazing job of skating between multiple plots. Hugh Jackman plays the released prisoner Jean Valjean, who spends the film fleeing the dogged Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Their lives criss-cross with that of a doomed mother, trickster innkeepers, an abused orphan and the young students of France's 1832 June Rebellion. That's a lot of happenings, even for a three-hour film, and newcomers to the "Les Mis" craze are bound to get lost once or twice, but stay with it.
So much of the movie rests on Jackman's performance, and he delivers. His singing is powerful and natural, and his performance as the haunted, redeemed Valjean drives the movie.
Anne Hathaway as Fantine isn't in every scene, but her fall from prettiest girl in the factory to wretched mother who sells her hair, teeth and body to save her child is stunning, a mini-movie all its own. The beautiful Hathaway keeps only her swan neck -- the rest of her turns dirty and ugly and sick and messy, a most non-Hollywood look for a red-carpet icon.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the Thénardiers, the conniving innkeepers who treat Fantine's daughter Cosette as their own Cinderella. Not all critics appreciate their bumbling slapstick, but it's remarkably toned down considering the actors in question. Their "Master of the House" is the musical's most memorable song (tied only with Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream"), and it's hard not to leave the theater with it bumbling around in your brain.
So many other highlights. Isabelle Allen, the tiny blonde who plays a young Cosette, is a somber, sweet version of the musical's famed poster, and her grave demeanor suits her role. Her character grows up to be played by an adequate Amanda Seyfried, but Seyfried is blown off the screen by beautiful brunette Samantha Barks, who played the role of Eponine in the London production and reprises it wonderfully, touchingly here.
The plot that takes place on a Parisian barricade brings in a dozen or so young men with names like Scrabble words (Enjolras, Courfeyrac, Lesgles). But Eddie Redmayne as Marius, who pines for Cosette and is in turn loved by Eponine, is really the main one you need to know, and he rises out of a crowd of young faces with a soaring voice and a believable anguish as his brave rebellion goes horribly wrong.
Not everything works. Fans of the musical were amused by the casting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. He can be a great actor, but he has an Australian accent and no stage singing experience (though yes, he sang for years with his own band). Every time he sings, it feels a little like a night at a Sydney karaoke bar. But the complaints are minor. Whether you've got the soundtrack memorized or only know it from Susan Boyle and George Costanza, "Les Mis" is a dazzling film experience.