It's not even about the French Revolution but about a little-known rebellion, known as the Paris Uprising of 1832. Some of us actually read Victor Hugo's novel in high school but still wonder what all the brouhaha is about the stage show. It's beloved on stage, perhaps, because of the songs, such as "I Dreamed a Dream," made even more famous by Susan Boyle on "Britain's Got Talent."
"Les Miserables" is the story of vengeance between a gendarme named Javert and Jean Valjean, a thief, guilty of stealing but a loaf of bread. Intersecting their lives are a seamstress, named Fantine; her daughter Cosette, reared by (plot alert) Valjean; two opportunists who fostered Cosette; assorted rebels with a cause against the royals; and countless chorus members.
William Nicholson wrote the screenplay, based on the original stage book by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil; the two added a song, "Suddenly," to the libretto for the film, and Tom Hooper, who directed "The King's Speech," recorded the actors singing the songs in situ rather than recording the voices and dubbing them. That means the songs are not polished; intervals, familiar from the Jaques Brel songbook, are sometimes a struggle even for such singers as Hugh Jackman as Valjean. Jackman's voice seems far too strained too often for beauty.
Anne Hathaway does a passable job as Fantine singing "I Dreamed a Dream" as the camera sits on her face on the right side of the screen. Amanda Seyfried manages Cosette as an adult. The most fun comes from Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who serve as comic relief, in both story and song -- and costume. The best voice of all, the one most associated with the sound of the Broadway musical, is Eddie Redmayne's when he sings "Empty Chairs, Empty Tables."
Hooper moved "Les Mis" off the stage into the streets and sewers and cloisters. He directs his cameras very close to his characters to allow people who saw the stage play from the nose-bleed sections, finally, to feel part of the action, to be in puddles of blood and riddles of confusion. A suicide scene, roiling with white waters set on boil, swirls majestically.
"Les Miserables," le film, is not for everyone, but it is still capable of heart-grabbing in the end, which comes 157 demanding minutes after the beginning.