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Jan 09

"Les Miserables": Do you hear the people sing?

Anne Hathaway performs “I Dreamed a Dream” in the new movie musical “Les Misérables.”

New movie adaptation of “Les Misérables” is simply spectacular

Anne Hathaway’s eyes are pools of misery.

Her anguished gaze seems to take in everything: the dark, dingy room, her tattered clothes, her pinched cheeks and cruelly cropped hair. Then her mouth opens, and a torrent of anguish comes pouring out — as pure an express of loss and longing as ever heard on screen.

The song is “I Dreamed a Dream,” undoubtedly the most famous number in the mega-hit musical “Les Misérables” and a favorite among altos. Yet Hathaway’s performance in Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation is so raw, so moving that it’s difficult to imagine anyone — not even “Britain’s Got Talent” success story Susan Boyle — imbuing that theatrical songbook staple with more meaning.

Sitting as it does at the intersection of Broadway and Hollywood Boulevard, “Les Misérables” offers the best of both words: moments of aching intimacy like Hathaway’s solo coupled with unbridled, unabashed spectacle.

Although the vocal performances don’t always meet expectations — these are well-trained celebrities, after all, not professional recording artists — the acting, casting, costuming and set dressing might just set a new standard for movie musicals.

Like Victor Hugo’s book and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical, “Les Miz” — as it’s known to legions of theater fans — opens in 1815, roughly 15 years after the end of the French Revolution.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, superb) has just been released from prison after serving a 20-year sentence. His original crime? Breaking a window and stealing a piece of bread to feed his sister’s starving child.

Valjean’s sense of freedom is short-lived when he realizes he must carry a yellow parole card for the rest of his life, forever haunted by his past. In the eyes of society and the law — particularly those of his former prison guard, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) — he will always be a criminal.

Only a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson*) takes pity on Valjean, offering him not only food and shelter but his best silver. The ex-convict decides to start his life anew under an assumed name.

Eight years later, he’s living as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

One of his employees, Fantine (Hathaway), gets in a fight with her fellow factory workers when they discover that she has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), currently in the care of an innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter).

Forced out onto the streets, Fantine is forced to sell her locket, her hair, her teeth and eventually her virtue. It’s there, among the impoverished prostitutes and well-heeled johns that frequent the city’s red light district, that Valjean discovers her, desperately ill.

He promises the dying Fantine to care for Cosette as if she was his own. But Javert, who’s now aware of Valjean’s true identity, has other plans for the ex-con.

Valjean must flee into the night once more, this time with a fresh sense of purpose.

A monumental production worthy of the original musical, “Les Misérables” will undoubtedly secure another Academy Award nomination for director Tom Hooper, whose previous movie, 2010′s “The King’s Speech,” won four Oscars.

An Oscar nod is most certainly in store for Anne Hathaway, who brings a remarkable rage — mixed with sorrow and pain — to her role as Fantine, the most miserable of “Les Misérables.” Although she appears in less than half the film, her performance will stay with filmgoers long after she’s vanished from sight.

As Jean Valjean, who experiences imprisonment, freedom, flight and fatherhood over the course of 17 years, Hugh Jackman is a strong, inspiring presence bursting with brio.

His counterpart, Russell Crowe, seems significantly less at ease as unyielding Inspector Valvert, whose slavish devotion to his duty leaves him incapable of pity. Part of the reason may lie in the Aussie rocker’s limited singing range; his baritone often sounds thin.

Dishy Eddie Redmayne is more compelling as Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary who falls for teenage Cosette. Whether comforting his dying friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) during “A Little Fall of Rain” or saluting his dead comrades in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” his tenor sings out sweet and true.

Unfortunately, Amanda Seyfried — whose soprano sounds great, not surprisingly — doesn’t have much to do as beautiful, virtuous Cosette. Her character’s simply a bit boring.

What little levity exists in “Les Miserables” comes courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who provide welcome comic relief as Eponine’s parents, the deliciously unscrupulous Thenardiers. (Even young Daniel Huttlestone, as plucky street urchin Gavroche, manages to add some spark to the grim, gritty proceedings.)

With its lengthy run-time and admittedly melodramatic plot, “Les Misérables” might be a bit of a long slog for folks who aren’t accustomed to Broadway musicals. There’s almost zero spoken dialogue during the 157-minute film, and all relevant plot developments are conveyed as song lyrics.

But for those who love achingly raw performances and emotion-packed musical numbers in lavish period settings, the experience couldn’t be more rewarding.

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* Fun fact: Colm Wilkinson originated the role of Jean Valjean on stage in London and New York City.

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“Les Misérables” image courtesy of MovieWeb.com.

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