Grab some tissues and head back to the barricades! The long-awaited Hollywood version of "Les Miserables" storms movie theaters Christmas Day.

Based on Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's blockbuster musical, which has been seen by nearly 60 million people worldwide since its 1985 debut, this ambitious big-screen adaptation may be short on subtlety, but it comes up huge for sheer gobsmacking sentiment. While the film has many flaws, from sloppy pacing and imperfect vocals to a miscast Russell Crowe as the vile inspector Javert, there's no denying its devastating emotional ferocity.

And if you are in the mood for a good cry (or three!), rejoice. Your eyes may well be red for days after this relentless tear-jerker. Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech") stays very true to the muckraking spirit of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, its harrowing denunciation of a society that oppresses the many to benefit the few.

Indeed, one of the most visceral aspects of this gorgeously shot epic is its embrace of grittiness. Panoramic shots of the poor, faces encrusted with sores and grime, begging for pennies from the rich, drive home the desperation of 19th-century France. This unflinching depiction of the brutal nature of squalor gives the film its bite.


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But there is also a price to be paid for all that realism. Sometimes the sprawling melodrama is so dire and grim that it's hard to find comfort in the rousing score and comic interludes.

The garish antics of the thieving Thenardiers fall flat here. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter generate no zest in scenes that should be outrageously funny. Cohen, who was such a hoot as "Borat," in particular comes off quite drab.

Eponine (the gifted Samantha Barks) also loses some of her sauciness because there is no mischievous glee lurking beneath the tragedy. "The Lovely Ladies" number is so horrific it's hard to sit through. That lack of comic relief can make the picture seem bombastic instead of sweeping.

That said, it's hard to resist the movie's wrenching sense of intimacy.

The real revelation is Anne Hathaway. While some have brought better pipes to the part, no actress has made the ill-fated Fantine more believable. Here she is not a simpleton or a saint, just a real woman degraded by an uncaring world. Her hair savagely shorn, the haunting Hathaway seems a natural for an Oscar nod.

Cheated out of her youth, Fantine slaves away in a factory in backbreaking drudgery. When she loses her job through no fault of her own, she is reduced to the gutter. Desperate to support her small child, she sells all she has -- her hair, her teeth and, finally, her body as one of the Lovely Ladies.

Hathaway radiates her broken spirit but also her steel. Fantine would gladly die to save Cosette (Amanda Seyfried). Her shattering rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" will reduce many to sobs. It's all the more beautiful for the imperfections captured by the live singing technique.

For his part, Hugh Jackman, a Broadway baby at heart, carries the rest of the picture as the ultimate underdog Jean Valjean, who languishes in prison for 20 years after stealing a single loaf of bread to feed a starving boy. Once he is released from the clutches of the dastardly copper Javert (a one-dimensional turn by Crowe), he finds himself tainted by his conviction, hounded like a dog, roaming the country in search of salvation.

If some of the actors sound strained reaching for the high notes in this classic score, such as the shaky Seyfried in Cosette's duets with the college radical Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Jackman sounds like he is having the time of his life. He gilds the forgettable new song "Suddenly" with a sense of dawning redemption.

Unfortunately, "Les Miz" can't shine as brightly as it should without a proper villain to torment Valjean, and Crowe seems tame as the menacing Javert. He's a decent actor, but he can't emote and sing at the same time -- and that undercuts many of the film's pivotal confrontations. Perhaps if the score had not been recorded live this flaw would be less grating.

While the antagonism between Valjean and Javert never cuts as deeply as it should, Hooper magnificently captures the throb and pulse of revolutionary Paris. He and cinematographer Danny Cohen open up the action of the play in sweeping scenes of pageantry, such as peasants hurling furniture out of garret windows to make a barricade.

These live-action shots are far more eye-popping than the movie's CGI interludes because they humanize the spirit of revolt, the thrilling seduction of anthems such as "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?" The real love story coursing through "Les Miz," after all, isn't about any one man or woman -- it's about the yearning of the people to be free.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4 and like her at Facebook.com/dsouzatheaterpage.

'les miserables' * * *

Opens: Christmas Day
Rated: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material and violence)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway
Director: Tom Hooper
Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes