If ever a stage musical sang out to be made into a movie it is Les Miserables, the Cameron Mackintosh-produced blockbuster based on Victor Hugo's masterpiece about an ex-con fighting for redemption in the turbulent years following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.
Most musicals are focused in time and place. Les Miserables, on the other hand, sprawls, ranging across France and the decades as Jean Valjean is pursued across the decades by Javert who, like a 19th century version of The Terminator, will not give up until he gets his man.
And then there are the shocking social conditions (the poverty, the starvation, the lack of sanitation, the exploitation of labour, the brutalisation of women by men and so forth) that Hugo spends more than 1500 pages detailing and which keep Les Miserables fresh for a contemporary audience.
If Hugo himself were still around, he would undoubtedly leap to his feet and applaud this satisfyingly grounded and suitably full-blooded adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg's beloved show, which debuted in 1980 and is still playing strong with Javert-like relentlessness.
Director Tom Hooper is not the smoothest or subtlest of directors. He uses a lot of huge close-ups and screwy framing, such as pinning his actors against walls and to one side like entomological specimens (he used the same erratic approach with his Oscar-winning The King's Speech).
However, Hooper's attack and off-kilter style unleashes real energy on the screen that drives Les Miserables through its almost three-hour running time and brings an extraordinary vivacity to Hugo's grand tale. This is no filmed stage play but a living, breathing movie that would have worked just as well without the singing (a very high compliment for a musical).
Hooper's best decision was to insist his cast perform their songs live to camera (generally, voices in musicals are dubbed in post- production). While it lessens the impact of the vocals it unleashes the actors to inhabit their characters with richness rarely experienced in this most artificial of genres, bringing a sweaty, lived-in realness demanded by this dirt-under-the- fingernails story.
Hooper has also drawn from Hugh Jackman something we have never seen before: a great movie performance. Jackman is a big name, multi-disciplinary superstar and an all-round great guy but he has the worst CV of any actor of his stature (flexing his biceps and glowering through whiskers in X-Men does not count as a performance).
Here playing an ordinary man who served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister, Jackman grabs you from the beginning, bringing the right measure of despair, anger and nobility that makes Jean Valjean one of the great characters in literature.
Russell Crowe as the indefatigable Javert does not have the vocal range of veteran song-and-dance man Jackman. However, Crowe more than makes up for his vocal limitations with his intensity and screen presence, ultimately finding the humanity beneath this most infamous of villains and reminding us that he's as much a victim as Valjean.
Even with these two powerhouse performances at the heart of Les Miserables it is Anne Hathaway who tucks the movie beneath her mud-stained skirts and makes a dash for the Oscars with a brief but searing turn as the doomed factory girl Fantine, culminating in a heartbreaking beautiful rendition of the show's famous song, I Dreamed A Dream (gone is the memory of Susan Boyle).
Indeed, all the performances have an aliveness that cuts through the doom and gloom of France on the verge of another revolution and anchors Hooper's sometimes too-frenetic camerawork and cutting.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring expert comic timing to the hilariously awful Thenardiers (their Master of the House is suitably gross); Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn) radiates decency and love as the upper-class revolutionary Marius who falls for Fantine's child Cosette (his delicate, soulful Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is spine-tingling); and, as the ill-fated Eponine, stage veteran Samantha Barks is sensational, drawing tears with her soaring version of On My Own.
At times you wished Hooper would slow down proceedings and allow us to contemplate Valjean's struggle to remake himself and rise above the horrific circumstances. Jackman brings wonderful determination and dignity to each of his scenes but he does tend to get lost in the swirling action and speedy segue from song to song.
But when the revolutionary action explodes on the streets of Paris and we get Les Miserables' signature anthem, Do You Hear the People Sing?, the helter-skelter approach and the raw, impassioned singing come together beautifully.
Les Miserables wears its heart on its puffy sleeves, which is how Victor Hugo would have wanted it.
'All the performances have an aliveness that cuts through the doom and gloom of France on the verge of another revolution.'