In the opening moments of Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, the camera surges up through a tattered flag and over a giant, rain-swept boat being pulled by prisoners under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). It's an immediate statement of intent from the King's Speech helmer - big, bold moviemaking that isn't going to shirk the opportunity to showboat.
Hugh Jackman heads up the cast as Jean Valjean, an ex-con who breaks parole and reinvents himself in bourgeois French society as part of a 19-year quest for redemption. Valjean is the glue that binds this lavish musical adaptation together, playing thief, conman, revolutionary and doting father to Cosette (Isabelle Allen, then later Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a seamstress who falls into prostitution when hard times come.
Jackman's talent for song-and-dance and action heroics make him perfect casting as Valjean. He's a character constantly reinventing himself in a bid to evade the clutches of relentless pursuer Javert and find a new sense of self (expressed in 'Who Am I?'). The X-Men star may take centre stage, but the spotlight is irrevocably drawn to Anne Hathaway and her outstanding performance as Fantine. Thrown out on the streets, she's forced to sell her hair, teeth and eventually herself to survive.
As Les Mis shifts away from Fantine, the focus moves to the young revolutionaries barricaded in by the French army, and the love triangle between Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the now-teenaged Cosette and Éponine (Samantha Barks). Redmayne and Seyfried both have the looks and the lungs to sell their respective parts, but it's newcomer Barks (a Les Mis stage veteran and one-time I'd Do Anything contestant) who delivers the most memorable turn of the trio. With 'On My Own' she gets her own solo number, and like Hathaway she'll break you heart.
Amidst the personal turmoil and brittle emotions, Hooper weaves in comic relief in the form of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter's thieving innkeepers the Thénardiers. It's fitting casting that makes for an entertaining watch, but they strike overtly comedic notes slightly off-kilter with the rest of the film. When they appear, it's like getting a glimpse of Tim Burton's vision of Les Misérables.
The film's real masterstroke is getting its cast to sing their performances live, a technique that hasn't been used since Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love. There's tangible passion and soul in every note, with each actor able to marry words to their physical performance. Les Mis's success in ditching the lip-synching may well represent a turning point for the Hollywood musical.
Les Misérables clocks in at a bum-numbing 158 minutes, but it justifies its running time thanks to its scale, scope and decades-spanning storyline. This coupled with an old school moviemaking approach (giant sets, hundreds of extras, considered camera work) make it emphatically epic. Major awards nominations, big box office bucks and well-pleased crowds are a certainty.
Gallery - Les Misérables in pictures