Verdict: Four out of five stars. The world’s most beloved musical comes to stirring life in an adaptation that pushes all the right buttons. Just as with the stage version, you will laugh, cry, sing along and be deeply moved, and director Tom Hooper manages the pacing nicely too. A pity then that Russell Crowe turns out to be the weakest link with his strangled, sometime scratchy, voice that turns Inspector Javert into a less than imposing figure. Nevertheless, a tour de force. 

"Russell's singing is horrible, Hugh!" "I know, Anne!" ©Universal Pictures

“Russell’s singing is horrible, Hugh!” “I know, Anne!” ©Universal Pictures

Back in 2003, I watched Les Miserables, the story of Jean Valjean, who rises from common criminal to mayor and businessman, in the West End, for the first and only time. Like the 60 million people around the world who have seen it, it captured my imagination in a way that is hard to describe. Your first time watching a classic like this is always special, and you tend to form fixed ideas about how the performance should be done. It is unsurprising then, that when I saw the trailer for this latest film version – the first since 1998 – I did not hold out high hopes. Musicals generally do not translate well to film, and I had a feeling that it would be the case again, despite the star-studded cast. I’m glad to say I was proven wrong by  some disgustingly talented actors. God, how I hate them.

If it’s true that every performance needs to start with a bang, then Les Miz 2012 certainly achieves that. It begins with a battered French flag floating on the water, before the camera rises through it from its underwater position and into the bowels of a shipyard, where dozens of prisoners pulling on ropes break into the Work Song. We then get our first sight of the criminal Valjean (Hugh Jackman), straining with emotion and righteous indignation, and the stage is set for the epic tale of his decades-long battle with the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

The rest of the cast couldn't take his singing. ©Universal Pictures

The rest of the cast couldn’t take his singing. ©Universal Pictures

It is little surprise that Jackman the Broadway veteran excels as Valjean. Whether broken and beaten down as the wandering outcast, or genteel and kindly as the mayor, his eyes shine with emotion and his vocal range means he hits every mark. You cannot help but cheer for Wolverine, though I kept expecting him to pop his claws and go into a berserker rage. And he has a worthy villain in Crowe: every time Valjean and Javert face off, it is compelling viewing. Unfortunately, Crowe is far better when he speaks than when he sings. This means that their performance of The Confrontation – a high point in the musical – turns into a bit of a – GASP – damp squib. It got to the point where I was tempted to go: “In mercy’s name, stop!”

Besides the dynamic duo, the rest of the cast is excellent as well. Step forward, the  – once again – highly impressive Anne Hathaway as the downtrodden and abused Fantine. With a face you could only love and  a voice to give Jackman a run for his money, you shed every tear with Catwoman, I mean Hathaway. Here, instead of sexy and manipulative, she is virtuous and pure, unwillingly forced into a life of prostitution. Her moment to shine comes with I Dreamed A Dream, and oh, how she shines. When Valjean holds her  hand and promises to take care of her daughter, you almost feel like reaching towards the screen to comfort her.
"And then when Batman makes his move, I'll...oh wait, wrong movie." ©Universal Pictures

“And then when Batman makes his move, I’ll…oh wait, wrong movie.” ©Universal Pictures

But the breakout star of this movie may well be 22-year-old Samantha Barks, who reprises her West End role as Eponine to electrifying effect. Besides her magnificent bosom, Barks has an excellent pair of lungs as well, investing the lovelorn Eponine with dignity and grace. She is liable to give male members of the audience nosebleeds when she begins singing On My Own. In the rain. In a clingy dress. And she proceeds to kill it so dead, you almost wish the movie would end there and then, because nothing else can top it. Expect big things from her in future.
Eponine couldn't figure out why the director kept making her shoot the scene in the rain ©Universal Pictures

Eponine couldn’t understand why the director kept making her shoot the scene in the rain ©Universal Pictures

The supporting players are more than competent too, especially Saacha Baron Cohen – hello, Borat! – and Helena Bonham Carter as comedy relief couple the Thénardiers. Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) make a nice couple, though the former is as douchey as ever. Here, he compounds his foolishness by forsaking the far hotter Eponine for a somewhat pedestrian looking Cosette. But they do a fine job with all the old favourites like Castle On A Cloud, Master of The House and One Day More. There is a nod towards longstanding Les Mis fans too, with old favourite Colm Wilinson, who made his name on the West End playing Valjean, cameoing as the Bishop who helps Valjean.
He had forgotten to tell Amanda about the superglue on his forehead ©Universal Pictures

He had forgotten to tell Amanda about the superglue on his nose. ©Universal Pictures

As far as filming techniques go, the camera truly does get down into the mud and dirt, at one point even following Valjean and Marius into a sewer. As far as revolutions go, Hooper also invests the battle sequences with a scope and depth that would not be possible on stage, though it is ever a strange sight to see French characters with British accents. There is no attempt at a deeper message or meditation here: this is simply a fine, fun and moving tale that will make you fall in love with Les Miz all over again.
And here's another pic of Samantha Barks, just because. ©Universal Pictures

And here’s another pic of Samantha Barks, just because. ©Universal Pictures

In conclusion: Les Miz ftw! What did you think of it? How did it compare to the stage versions you’ve seen?