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Uneven musical a hit-and-'Miz' film affair

The thing that makes “Les Misérables” a great stage musical is not primarily the vivid score, expressive staging or fine performances. It’s you – the active imagination you bring to this sprawling, emotion-laden tale to make it true.

Javert plunges into the Seine, not merely a pool of shadows, because we believe he does. Valjean drags Marius through the dank sewers of Paris, not just puddles of stage light, because we convince ourselves he’s traipsing through muck.

The film version of the musical does the work for us. Director Tom Hooper and his crew spared no apparent expense to recreate France in the early 19th century; every frill on a dress or rut in a muddied street proclaims its literalness.

The results are all swings and roundabouts, as the British say. (This is a very British production: Director Tom Hooper, writer William Nicholson and six of the 10 principal actors are English. Two of the leads are Australian, two American.)

On one hand, it can inspire powerful feelings. We meet convict Jean Valjean when he looks like Vincent van Gogh in his last troubled days: beard thick, staring eyes wild and red, scarred head shaven close. As he meditates on the kindness of the bishop who redeemed his soul, we feel all of Valjean’s pain, hope and uncertainty.

Except for Russell Crowe, whose dull Javert seems more constipated than conflicted, this is an actor’s musical. Eddie Redmayne, swept off his feet as lovelorn Marius, makes a good match for the dewy Cosette of Amanda Seyfried. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks weep tears and wring them from us as doomed Fantine and Eponine. Hugh Jackman tops them all as the vulnerable yet indefatigable Valjean.

Where the musical falls short is – well, music. Hooper’s quest for realism leads singers to sob, choke off sentences or drop into inaudible whispers during grand melodies. A musical ought to convey emotions too large for speech: sorrow, joy, love that can’t be expressed in ordinary ways. Turning songs into vocalized dramatic monologues misses the point.

Hooper works here with a mixed bag: people who sing passably (Seyfried and Redmayne) or powerfully (Hathaway), seem intimidated by the material (Crowe), are pushed out of their natural range (Jackman, for whom Valjean lies high) or can’t sing at all. That would be Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who squawk and bark as the loathsome, predatory Thenardiers without being funny or frightening enough. (Did we really need to see Thenardier urinate into a half-filled wine bottle to find him contemptible? The lyrics inform us.)

Nor does Hooper know how to shoot musical numbers. He often locks onto actors’ heads for the length of a number, pointing the camera at open mouths, until we become more familiar with Jackman’s uvula than his otolaryngologist.

Yet at the heart of the film, the stirring story of the French students’ rebellion and one man’s lifelong redemption remains intact and as touching as ever. However much Hooper makes the prostitutes around Fantine behave like leering clowns in a second-rate Fellini film, her fall is tragic. However homiletic the bishop’s grand speech may be, the message of forgiveness shines through. (Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Valjean in London and New York, plays the bishop.)

Many people revere this musical: The 25th anniversary national tour reaches Belk Theater in February, and all eight shows are virtually sold out. (Call 704-372-1000 to check.)

You may not be able to get a seat or may not want to pay 10 times the cost of a movie ticket for one. If so, this film will be a reasonable substitute. As you watch it, you’ll know why audiences have loved “Les Miz” since the ’80s, even if you won’t be seeing the thing they love.

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