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'Les Misérables' is over the top

Not every voice met the challenge

6:14 PM, Dec. 26, 2012
Eddie Redmayne stars as Marius, left, and Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette in 'Les Miserables.'
Eddie Redmayne stars as Marius, left, and Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette in 'Les Miserables.' / Universal

‘Les MisÉrables’

Opens Tuesday: Bellevue 8, Green Hills 16, Hollywood 27, Opry Mills 20, Providence 14, Streets of Indian Lake 16, Thoroughbred 20, Wynnsong 10, Wynnsong 16
Rated: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Star rating:★★½

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Tom Hooper’s extravaganza, big-screen telling of the beloved musical “Les Misérables” is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you’ve Felt Something — powerfully and repeatedly — until you’ve touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own.

It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle. But at the same time it’s hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper’s efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There’s a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo’s 19th-century France.

Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing “The King’s Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint.

But he also does something clever in asking his actors sing live on camera, rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes.

That’s definitely part of the fascination of this version of “Les Misérables”: seeing how these A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing. Hugh Jackman, as the hero and former prisoner Jean Valjean, is a musical theater veteran and seems totally in command (although the higher part of his register gets a bit nasal and strained). Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, whom Jean Valjean adopts, had already proven she can sing in “Mamma Mia!” but hits some freakishly high notes here — which isn’t always a good thing. Eddie Redmayne is a lovely surprise as the love-struck revolutionary Marius. And of course, Samantha Barks gives an effortless performance as the lonely and doomed Eponine — everyone here is doomed, it’s “Les Misérables” — a role she’d performed on the London stage.

And then there’s Russell Crowe as the obsessed lawman Javert, who has pursued Jean Valjean for decades for breaking his parole and insists he’s still a dangerous man, despite the pious and prosperous life Valjean has forged. Although Crowe has sung in rock bands for years, he’s vocally overmatched here, which strips the character of the menace that defines him. Seeing him sing opposite Jackman makes you wish you could watch these same actors having these same conversations with, like, actual words. But again, it’s hard not to appreciate the effort, the risk it required to take on the role.

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