The film, directed by Tom Hooper (“The King's Speech"), is based on the stage musical of the same name by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, which was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. The story follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a fugitive on the run who is trying to rebuild his life and find redemption.
The tragic tale takes no time before entering into the gritty reality of the narrative: The opening sequence finds Valjean as an imprisoned slave, pulling a boat to port and singing a macabre song about being a slave until he dies. After 19 years of imprisonment, he is set free, and, at the will of a bishop, the wayward Valjean skips parole and begins a new life.
In the true spirit of classic musicals, Hooper's “Les Mis” conveys almost the entire story through song. Jackman proves worthy of his Tony Award (for 2004's “The Boy From Oz”) in his portrayal of a flawed man on a quest for self-improvement, which he undertakes while dodging the tenacious police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) and keeps a promise he made to Fantine (Anne Hathaway).
Fantine is a factory worker, the mother of a sick child, and Hathaway’s best character to date. The actress has moved from her squeaky-clean beginning in “The Princess Diaries” to more recently playing a woman with Parkinson's disease in “Love and Other Drugs,” a vigilante in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and now a desperate women who figuratively and literally sells her body to support her ill daughter.
Despite her small but crucial supporting role, Hathaway manages to steal the film. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a wrenching solo that Hathaway belts out, covered in filth and effectively projecting her character's lack of will to go on living, and it makes her a favorite for any supporting-actress awards. While there are some strong vocal performances, others -- like Crowe's -- are underwhelming, and even Jackman's delivery often feels more like talking than actual singing.
Although the film is about the poor and downtrodden, there is a healthy dose of comic relief, courtesy of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who play Madame Thenardier and Thenardier, respectively. The thieving couple sing one of the film’s few upbeat songs, and they reappear, lightening the mood from time to time throughout the film.
The comedic duo make their way onto the screen after Valjean discovers Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) living under their care. After taking the young girl on the run with him, Valjean raises her as his own daughter.
After Cosette has grown into a woman, she falls in love with the French revolutionary Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne). This sets up both a love triangle and a suspenseful action sequence between the civilian militia and French soldiers.
Few films offer all of the things “Les Mis” brings to audiences: love, war, redemption and sorrow. It is an embodiment of some of the greatest cinematic delights. Despite the abundant misery, “Les Mis” is ultimately an optimistic, socially conscious film about what even the most downtrodden can accomplish when given the means and opportunity.