From its very first image -- an underwater shot of a tattered French flag -- "Les Miserables" announces itself as a bold work of cinema, not some stodgy, too-faithful adaptation of the heart-rending, soul-searing pop opera that has played on stages all over the world.
Hey! Where else could you see Marvel Comics superhero Wolverine dressed up in French finery and singing about his feelings to everyone around him?
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"Les Miserables"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Other: Opens Christmas Day. A Universal Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for violence, sexual situations. 158 minutes
Tom Hooper, the British director who visually bumped up his Oscar-winning "The King's Speech" from a potential filmed play into a potent, playful film, goes for broke here, hitting us with a cinematic kitchen sink of zoom shots, hyperbolic crane swoops, tidy-tight close-ups, super-wide-angled vistas, swirling lenses and intimate tracking shots.
Hooper seems obsessed with never allowing his "Les Miserables," opening in theaters Christmas Day, to suggest its proscenium-arch counterpart.
To that end, the director makes a game-changing decision to turn the music-based epic into a drama-based movie during which actors perform their roles as they would in any historical work. They just happen to deliver the dialogue in song.
"Les Miserables" abandons theatrical stylization, opting for a gritty, 19th-century urban squalor look, right down to the bloodshot eyes and grimy teeth of Victor Hugo's tested protagonist, Jean Valjean, played with soulful sadness and quiet courage by erstwhile Broadway musical star Hugh Jackman.
From the sweeping, testosterone-tough opening scene -- chained prisoners work in tandem to pull a ship into port in 1815 Toulon, France -- the camera swoops down to introduce Valjean, imprisoned 19 years for stealing food for a baby, and to introduce Inspector Javert (an unlikely Russell Crowe), a by-the-book, overly zealous authority figure.
Finally freed, Valjean realizes he can't escape prison, for he cannot gain employment as an ex-con.
So he breaks his parole and disappears, emerging years later with a new identity as a successful businessman and local mayor, always looking over his shoulder for his unrelenting pursuer, Javert (the inspiration for the cop "Gerard" in both TV and movie versions of "The Fugitive").
If you know the story of "Les Miserables," you also know it's practically a series of religious parables set to music and dripping with lessons in love, sacrifice, justice, bravery and forgiveness.
Shunned by everyone after his prison release, a despairing Valjean is given hope by a generous bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated Valjean's role in the show's original 1985 London run). He gives Valjean gold items to grant him a fresh start.
Valjean's questioning of humanity in his song "What Have I Done?" sets a new standard for emo dam-busters.
But it pales in comparison to the raw pain and congealed anguish squeezed into each lyric by Anne Hathaway's conscience-battered "I Dreamed a Dream," captured in a single fluid take so intimate and moving that your heart might skip a beat.
Hathaway plays Fantine, a struggling employee fired from Valjean's company after it's revealed she has a tiny daughter, Cosette, out of wedlock. To support her daughter, kept as a servant by two larcenous innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, reunited from "Sweeney Todd"), Fantine becomes a prostitute and broken soul.
Suffering from spiritual and physical malnutrition, Fantine lies dying before Valjean, who, realizing he's responsible for her fate, swears to find and raise Cosette as his own daughter. Fantine dies, and Hathaway's departure leaves "Les Miserables" with an emptiness that the production almost can't recover from.
Good thing we can look forward to the massive, rousing, set-piece anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing" and a mini-French revolution, an idealistic student uprising led by the appealing Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls for the now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) while ignoring his fetching, pining admirer Eponine (Samantha Barks).
Whatever small reservations might come with "Les Miserables" (those too-wide-angle shots often distort images), Hooper makes up for with fulfilled grandiose ambition and a graceful urgency created by the actors singing live, without lip-syncing to recorded tracks.
And if Crowe sounds more like a rock band singer than a Metropolitan Opera vocalist, all the better.
Hooper's "Les Mis" redefines this opera in such significant and original ways that it might well revolutionize how future productions stage this timeless classic.