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Dreaming the dream Les Miserables'

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Musical adaptation doesn't quite connect

Adapting a beloved work into a new medium is always a tricky prospect. Maybe it's a great work of literature, maybe it's a comic book, maybe it's a stage play regardless, if a cinematic adaptation is being made, chances are that there is a fairly devoted fan base out there a fan base that will let you know on no uncertain terms if you screw up their baby.

So walking into a film like 'Les Miserables' can lead to some feelings of trepidation. 'Les Mis' based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo - is one of the most popular musicals of all time. While you can admire director Tom Hooper ('The King's Speech') for his ambition in bringing that sweepingly lavish production to the silver screen, you also wonder how he can possibly capture the visceral spirit of the live show in the static and unchanging cinematic medium.

'Les Miserables' takes place against the backdrop of 19th century France. It is a time of upheaval and unrest for all. Our main player is a convict named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, 'Real Steel'), a man who spent nearly 20 years at hard labor for the act of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, 'The Man with the Iron Fists') is the stoic policeman convinced of Valjean's unchangeable criminality when Valjean breaks his parole, Javert makes it his mission to bring him to justice.

Valjean attempts to reinvent himself, but the never-ending pursuit of Javert is a constant shadow falling over Valjean's many attempts at a new life. When he takes it upon himself to care for Cossette, the young daughter of former factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway, 'The Dark Knight Rises'), his life becomes about more than just himself.

As the years pass, Valjean and the soon-grown Cossette (Amanda Seyfried, 'Gone') find themselves wrapped up in the revolutionary spirit of their times through chance, circumstance and the overarching power of love.

Director Hooper makes a number of questionable decisions with this film. He clearly aspired to expand upon the epic bombast of the stage version, yet we repeatedly find ourselves bogged down with extreme close-ups that were probably intended to take advantage of film's potential for intimacy, but instead served mostly to lessen the impact of the songs. In trying to enhance the sweeping scale while striving for those moments of intimacy, Hooper manages to stumble at both ends.

(Note should be made of Hooper's decision to have the songs sung live, with little alteration or enhancement. It lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings that was welcome; while there may have been some minor flubs and flaws, it allowed the songs to exist within the realm of the story.)

However, the odd choices and bordering-on-lazy editing are mostly salvaged by the gameness of his cast. Jackman is outstanding, the perfect choice for this role. His Broadway bona fides are already firmly established and he brings a gravitas to his portrayal that the role sorely needs. Hathaway's Fantine might not be quite as good as the gushing pre-press indicated, but anyone would be hard-pressed to live up to that hype. She comes close to being the blend of epic and emotive that Hooper was reaching for. Crowe has been getting hammered in many corners for his portrayal of Javert; he's nothing to write home about, but for someone a bit out of his depth, he does OK.

As for the rest of the cast: Seyfried is OK, although she's got a bit of the 'deer in headlights' thing going. Eddie Redmayne ('My Week With Marilyn') and Aaron Tveit ('Premium Rush') are solid as erstwhile revolutionaries, while Sacha Baron Cohen ('The Dictator') and Helena Bonham Carter ('Dark Shadows') lend some welcome if perhaps a bit overenthusiastic moments of levity.

'Les Miserables' is the sort of movie that will inspire strong feelings amongst fans of the musical some good, some not so good. For those unfamiliar with the play, watching the movie will make for a decent introduction; it's a bit overlong, perhaps, but while there's a slight disconnect from the source material, there's also an undeniable passion and respect for it.

3.5 out of 5

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