Movie musicals are tricky. There is always the danger that the end result will be too stagey, as if someone just set up a camera and filmed the proscenium (The Producers). Sometimes the filmmakers take the inherent staginess of the play and turn it to their advantage (Chicago). Sometimes the source material isn't very good, and you get an even worse movie (Mamma Mia! and Rock of Ages). Say what you will about the musical Les Miserables; the story is epic, entertaining and tragic, thanks to the original novel by Victor Hugo. I for one, think the show is superlative. The resulting film is one of the best musical adaptations ever made, on par with Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof.
Les Misérables begins in France at the end of the Napoleonic era. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a convict imprisoned twenty years earlier for stealing a loaf of bread. Released on parole, the stringent laws regarding ex-cons prevent him from finding work. Starving, he steals valuables from a kindly bishop, who in turn saves him from the soldiers who catch him in the act. The priest (played by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean on Broadway) tells Valjean he must live his life for God. Valjean takes his ill-gotten gains, breaks his parole and disappears. Years later, after making his fortune and rising to prominence, he comes face to face with Javert (Russell Crowe), the government official who has pursued him all these years.
There is, of course, much more to the plot, but most people at least have a passing familiarity with the story. Two elements make this a superior musical adaptation. Director Tom Hooper never lets the story feel confined Les Misérables is an epic tale, and Hooper and his cinematographer Danny Cohen keep the camera moving constantly; the transitions between the passing years are particularly effective, as the camera flies over the cityscape of 19th century Paris. The filmmakers make use of wide, panoramic shots. This is not to say they are afraid of using closeups. Quite the contrary, but I'll get to that in a moment.
The other important factor in adapting a musical and using big name actors; can the performers sing? The good news is yes, they can all sing, though Russell Crowe is out of his depth singing Broadway tunes. Jackman is a Tony winner, and it shows. He is fantastic as Jean Valjean, both as a singer and actor. Despite his vocal limitations, Crowe nails the role of Javert, a man so convinced of the infallibility of the law that he will stop at nothing to arrest Valjean. One person rises so far above the rest of the cast that she manages to eclipse even the performance of Hugh Jackman, and that is Anne Hathaway. As Fantine, the doomed factory worker turned prostitute, Hathaway steals the show with a role that only showcases her for about twenty minutes. Her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" is one of the most heartbreaking and powerful moments I've seen on screen in the last few years. There is absolutely no way she doesn't take home an Oscar for her role.
There has been a lot of criticism of the use of closeups during many of the songs. For instance, the camera stays tightly on Hathaway's face during the entirety of "I Dreamed a Dream," a scene that also plays out in one unbroken take. I think the use of closeups was a masterstroke, as it creates an intimacy between the characters and the audience. The emotion and heartache is so much more immediate, and the performances are even more emotionally heightened. I can't imagine it working any other way. The filmmakers know when to pull back and let the epic qualities through however; the final scene is breathtaking. Les Miserables is one of the best movies of the year, and it has been an excellent year for movies.