'Les Misérables' features great acting as well as singing

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

'Les Misérables' stars Hugh Jackman in a piece of ideal casting.

Universal Pictures/AP
'Les Misérables' stars Anne Hathaway (r.) and Hugh Jackman.

Les Misérables” is a great big behemoth of a musical, but I rarely felt weighted down by it. It’s based on the Cameron Mackintosh production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s French stage musical – one of those shows, like “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” that always seems to running somewhere in the world. It passed me by, though. I come to the movie fresh.

Or at least partially so. The great big behemoth of a source novel by Victor Hugo has been filmed numerous times; its narrative has been recycled endlessly (most memorably in “The Fugitive” TV series and, less memorably, the movie).

Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread in early 19th century France. Released by the cruel martinet Javert (Russell Crowe), he violates his parole, but manages to become an upstanding citizen (while hiding his past). Javert eventually comes to hound him once again, which provides the through-line for a plot that encompasses a starving, unwed mother (Anne Hathaway) and her young daughter (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried); the daughter’s cruel guardians (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter); a revolutionary leader of the 1832 Paris student uprisings (Eddie Redmayne) and his unrequited love (Samantha Barks); and enough squalor and grotesquerie to fill out a dozen other movies.

Tom Hooper, who directed “The King’s Speech,” is not great with action and big set pieces, but he gets the job done. What makes “Les Misérables” work are the up-close moments when he can focus on performance and song. (In a welcome switch from the usual practice, the singing was recorded live on the set.)

Hathaway’s big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” filmed in a single take, is shockingly expressive (and not just because she’s shorn of hair and hollow-cheeked). It’s the best piece of acting she’s ever done. Jackman, ideal casting here, has a couple of showstoppers, such as “What Have I Done?,” as do Barks (“On My Own”) and the marvelous Redmayne (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”). It’s great to watch a musical in which the acting is on the same high level as the singing. (Okay, Crowe is no Ezio Pinza, but he’ll do.) Usually you have to put up with ho-hum performances in order to savor the song-and-dance goodies. Grade: B+ (Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.)

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