The long-awaited film version of the hit stage musical Les Misérables arrives in time for Christmas with a certain Dickensian vibe: A colourful cast of 19th-century denizens sing their way through grim poverty and social injustice.
This is, however, a Victor Hugo tale as downbeat as literature gets. If A Christmas Carol is as heart-warming as a steaming mug of mulled wine, Les Miz is more a tranquillizer dart to the seasonal solar plexus.
But while this may not be a feel-good movie, it's doubtful there has been any movie so invested with such raw feeling, especially a musical.
It is the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whom we first encounter finishing a 20-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. Once free, he wanders from town to town, shunned by respectable folks until he finds transformative acceptance in the house of a priest (Colm Wilkinson, the most celebrated of the stage Jean Valjeans).
Years pass, and Valjean rises to respectability as the mayor of a small town, until the ruthless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) reappears in his life. He is again forced to flee, but not before he befriends the embittered prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and adopts her daughter Cosette away from the clutches of a pair of sleazy innkeepers, the Thénardiers. (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide the film with its few bitter laughs.)
More years pass, and Valjean lives a remote existence in Paris with the now mature and beautiful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and faces exposure again with the return of the relentless Javert and Cosette's blooming infatuation with an idealistic revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Their relationship is in danger, however, owing to the intrusion of the meddlesome Thénardiers and their lovestruck daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks).
Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) approaches the material with an almost radical sensibility. He eschews choreographed, toe-tapping spectacle. Reasoning that most of the songs are as serious as a deathbed testament -- and at least a couple of them are just that -- he shoots many songs as he would a dramatic soliloquy, in close-up with a minimum of editing.
This can result in transcendent moments. Fantine's rendition of the musical's most famous song, I Dreamed a Dream, is interpreted with wrenching dramatic potency by Hathaway, sobbing all the while, but never at the expense of the music. (In effect, Hathaway out-Piafs Edith Piaf. We smell Oscar.)
Hooper doubles down on this risky proposition by shooting all the musical numbers live, without the option of later dubbing. At its best, this device gives the musical an unprecedented intimacy.
The problem is that it gets a little too intimate. I'll bet more than a half an hour of screen time is devoted solely to Jackman's yawning rictus as he expertly sings his way through most of the Les Miz playlist. A musical theatre vet, Jackman is a strong singer and a good-looking guy -- but there are limits.
Fortunately, there are distractions from other actors. Crowe brings a touch of the rock star belter to Javert. Seyfried is a sweet-voiced adult Cosette. Brit actor Redmayne (of My Week with Marilyn) is a surprisingly good singer and Barks comes to the film as an unknown worth knowing better.
If it's all too intense for the almost-three-hour running time, maybe that should be a sign it's time to revive what was once a staple of the epic-length motion picture: the intermission.
Excerpts of select reviews of Les Misérables:
"You don't have to go to the barricades for Hooper's film to appreciate it for what it is -- a productive experiment, an epic-scaled weepie, an exercise in sincere kitsch, and, perhaps too easily dismissed, a rare modern movie about the wretched poor, a traditional subject of interest at this time of year."
-- Liam Lacey, Globe and Mail
"The more Hooper tries -- and oh, how he tries, ratcheting the filth amp to 11 and shooting almost everything with an arsenal of wide-angled, handheld cameras -- the more the moist-eyed storybook romanticism of the source material proves resilient to his efforts."
-- Scott Foundas, Village Voice
"This fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines."
-- Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
"It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle. But at the same time it's hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach..."
-- Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway
Globe, Grant Park, Kildonan Place, McGillivray, Polo Park, St. Vital
3 1/2 stars out of five