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The latest of the 60 or so "Les Miserables" films made during the past hundred-odd years is a flashy, sprawling spectacle that works best when it shrinks to the size of a human face. Director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") made some questionable choices in this version — among them casting the underwhelming pipes of Russell Crowe in one of the lead roles, the law man Javert — but his decision to shoot most of the featured songs in intimate, knife-fight proximity to his actors transforms this from an adaptation of a stage production to a version no Broadway audience will ever be able to get. Probably no "Les Mis" till now shows such keen detail during Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" rendition to notice, say, the quivering drop of snot threatening to leak out of Anne Hathaway's left nostril.
This "Les Mis" is occasionally fun in that way, peppering the urchins of 19th century France with flaky lip scabs and inflamed sores. It sends two of its leads to sink and lurch through the mahogany gumbo of Paris' sewers. The opening scene sees a team of prisoners slaving to right a listing ship by hand, yanking great lengths of rope as the ocean charges in against them. It's a musical with a strong stomach to go with its bellows lungs.
By now the most iconic interpretation of Victor Hugo's 1862 epic novel "Les Miserables" is the musical, which debuted in Paris in 1980 and on Broadway in 1987. There are something like 50 separate musical numbers in "Les Mis" from Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical book and Schonberg's and Herbert Kretzmer's sweeping score — Tony winners, both. Combined with its occasionally opulent sets and epic tone across two-and-a-half hours, the overall effect approaches opera — fine material set against $60 million worth of whizz-bang production.
At the heart of the story is Jean Valjean (a chameleonic Hugh Jackman), imprisoned for 19 years for stealing bread to feed a starving baby, finally free but hounded by his past and the aforementioned wan-voiced Javert. He comes into some money and sheds his identity, becoming a factory owner and adopting a young girl named Cosette. They later fall into the mix of a student-led rebellion in Paris when Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls for a revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Along the way: love, mercy, duplicity, battle, horror, valor, sacrifice, suicide, and even some historical context, if you're up on the June Rebellion. There's almost nothing the screenplay (by a committee capped by William Nicholson, of "Gladiator" fame) resists in its efforts to appeal to an audience exemplified by literate, sentimental, quietly subversive 16-year-old girls.
That's not to denigrate the experience for anyone else. You may indeed believe in love at first sight when Marius and Cosette lock eyes across a crowded thoroughfare, while acknowledging that it helps when that first sight is between Amanda Seyfried and a member of a student revolution apparently recruited solely from Abercrombie in-store displays. You may indeed believe in the honor Jean Valjean shows by repeatedly sparing the life of Javert when the former prisoner has a chance to vanquish the bad cop at his heels. And you may believe that Russell Crowe, for all his action-star film credits over the years, is actually singing his way through a late-onset puberty, right before your eyes. Otherwise, "Les Mis" is rather unbelievable, quite often in the best of ways.