In "Les Misérables," Victor Hugo's 19th century historical novel and the behemoth, long-running musical based on it, the question raised again and again is not an obvious one. Because it doesn't really concern the hero's transformation.
No, the question isn't, will the ex-convict Jean Valjean remain a changed soul? Instead the quandary is, will Javert, the man who hunts him obsessively, recognize in Valjean's transformation an opportunity for his own redemption?
Director Tom Hooper's lavish yet gritty big-screen adaptation of the Tony-winning musical, opening Tuesday, stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe as Valjean and Javert, respectively. And the British director wields a decidedly visual language — vast and intimate — to tell the story of the nemeses, the ill-fated factory worker turned prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and her wee daughter Cosette.
Jackman is in his element here, mastering the space where acting and singing meet head on. He brings depth to Valjean's tale of offense and grace, of taking responsibility for a child and then letting go. Jackman makes Valjean's epiphanies, aches and doubts real. Late in the movie, his rendition of "Bring Him Home" has narrative heft, moving Valjean from fatherly rival to champion of his daughter's true love.
We meet Valjean shortly before his release from a chain gang. It is a few years since the French Revolution, and it's quickly clear that little wealth has trickled down to the masses, the poor, les misérables.
Valjean was imprisoned for failing (or not) the sort of dilemma rudimentary ethics classes like to pose: Would you break the law to help your starving sister and her child? He would and did. And so Valjean served five years for stealing a loaf of bread and another 14 for escape attempts. As he departs, head of the guards Javert promises him hell if he violates parole.
Like so many ex-convicts, Valjean returns to a suspicious society. A bishop (Colm Wilkinson) shows him compassion. Valjean disappoints us more than the bishop when he steals from the convent.
If you wonder how this often-grim adaptation of Hugo's socially thoughtful if romantic novel finds itself opening in theaters on Christmas Day, you need look no further than the meeting of Valjean and the bishop, who strikes a subtle Christian bargain with Valjean.
"Why settle for these trinkets, my son, have you forgotten these valuable candlesticks? Use them to better yourself and live a generous life," is the Christian bargain.
"What Have I Done?" sings an anguished and renewed Valjean.
Only no one sent Javert the memo. So begins one of the great hunts in literature. Valjean's every decency is met by Javert's righteousness. The inspector's singleminded adherence to the law becomes its own form of villainy.
They first meet again in Montreuil-sur-Mer, where Valjean owns a factory and has become the town's benevolent mayor. He has taken the name Monsieur Madeleine.
Hathaway brings a radiance and sorrow to Fantine, the onetime employee Valjean aids too late to save — but not too late to become caretaker to her child.
When the action relocates to Paris nine years later, Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette. It's a wan performance amid more robust turns. It's as if Valjean protected his beloved ward so much, she lacks any signs of the hard-won grit of her dead mother or her adoptive father. Indeed you may find yourself rooting for the more destitute Éponine (Samantha Barks) who hankers for Marius, the student revolutionary.
Marius and Cosette's love-at-first-sight story rings tinny next to Hugo's grander themes of justice and grace. Eddie Redmayne, with his smattering of freckles and wide, inviting mouth, appeals as the well-off, radicalized student Marius. But his object of affection seems less inspiring than the ideals that send he, friend Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and their fellow students to the barricades.
The students provide two of the film's finest songs: the gorgeous anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and the ballad of camaraderie sung on the eve of a bloody street battle, "Drink With Me."
When Marius returns to the scene of so much carnage, he sings the lovely and mournful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
Through out the saga, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter take sleazy delight in their roles as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, the innkeepers who fleeced Fantine as they cared for the child Cosette.
Hooper and his team, which includes the original creators of the musical behemoth (producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, among them), have hewed to the sung-through form. Further adding to the challenge and texture of the undertaking, Hooper had the actors sing live.The result is not always pretty. Far from being a problem, this adds to the movie's force. There is real exertion going on here.
Much will be made of Crowe's capable but hardly astounding singing. The notes the actor doesn't hit in song, he captures in his face. Javert is the only one that doesn't know how wounded he is by his past, how out of tune with France's future he is.
"LES MISÉRABLES." Directed by Tom Hooper. Written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer. Based on the stage musical by Boublil and Schönberg. Photography by Danny Cohen. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne. Rated PG-13. 169 minutes. At area theaters.