The year is 1815 and the city is Paris, where Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is on a chain gang at the docks, pulling a damaged ship out of the sea. He got there because many years ago he was caught stealing a loaf of bread and no matter how much he protested it was to feed the starving son of his sister, those excuses fell on deaf ears which is why he has spent so long in shackles - that and his attempts at escape. But now he has a chance of parole, and after the master Javert (Russell Crowe) instructs him to lift the broken flag out of the water to teach him who is boss, he gives him a leaf of paper with his conditional release on it. But even with freedom within his grasp, Valjean is still hungry...
Before it was a legendary musical in London's West End and later Broadway, Les Misérables was a celebrated novel by Victor Hugo, and had lasted very well on its own with classic status before the Cameron Mackintosh production was such a success. Nowadays, if anything the musical has upstaged the text, and the Oscar-winning movie drawn from it only served to underline that so much so that any mention of Hugo's source brings to mind the song-packed telling of his lengthy tale. Certainly the fans of the theatre experience ensured the film was a major hit in cinemas, with many more who had not had the pleasure of its lavish presentation flocking to see what the big deal was.
For many of them, after emerging two and a half hours later, they still couldn't see what the big deal was, and Les Misérables joined the ranks of movie adaptations of theatrical musicals where the only folks who thoroughly enjoyed them were those who had watched them on the stage, often more than once, twice, three times. That said, this was probably more Mamma Mia! than it was Rent, The Phantom of the Opera, Rock of Ages or the many live successes that had fallen flat on their faces for anyone who had not had the benefit of attending the actual show with actors performing without the benefit of lipsyncing, and could truly get something out of knowing the songs beforehand.
In this case, a lot like an Andrew Lloyd Webber work, almost all the dialogue was sung with a couple of truly memorable tunes, only here there was really one song everyone knew, and that was I Dreamed a Dream; even then, it was likely Susan Boyle they were thinking of when they heard it, and she wasn't part of any original Les Mis cast. Undeterred, director Tom Hooper took his actors and pressed them into service with one major condition: they all had to sing live and be recorded doing so. The idea was to offer more of a film performance than a stage one, with proper thespianism, so it did not matter so much if they were not belting out the melodies, as they could sell the emotion of the scenes with their other talent for playing characters.
Fair enough, the actors on the stage had to do that every night, but with the emphasis on bringing out the characterisation in tandem with the singing it did mean their voices sounded strained, as if they were concentrating on other things, which they may well have been. Some emerged from this better than others; there were those who had a problem with Anne Hathaway's stylings, but she read the tone of the material very well and it was no so surprise she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, such was the impression she made with a mere fifteen minutes of screen time in an elephantine movie (which included an elephant too). Russell Crowe was not so lucky, with much criticism coming his way, but as the bad guy his physical presence was impressive, not embarrassing himself as some would have it.
Javert was also offered an interesting "character arc" (as they say in screenwriting courses), doggedly pursuing Valjean for almost the whole story with a completely out of proportion reaction to his idea of bringing him to a justice that for most people wouldn't matter anything like as much, and Crowe lent a glowering, bullying mood to his interpretation that made his eventual realisation Javert has been wasting his life for decades of needless obsession all the more powerful. On the other hand, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter's husband and wife schemers as comical characters were out of step with the rest of it, considering how, well, miserable it became. Elsewhere, Amanda Seyfried displayed a slightly offputting vibrato as Valjean's young charge and post-Revolutionary Paris was lavishly rendered, but there was a problem, and that was its sheer relentlessness, everything on the same note and tunes sounding the same, therefore be warned: if you didn't see it on stage, be prepared to be worn down into enervation after about an hour.