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Hooper's 'Les Miserables' is relentless

Tom Hooper's extravaganza, big-screen telling of the beloved musical “Les Miserables” is as relentlessly driven as the ruthless Inspector Javert himself. It simply will not let up until you've Felt Something — powerfully and repeatedly — until you've touched the grime and smelled the squalor and cried a few tears of your own.

It is enormous and sprawling and not the slightest bit subtle. But at the same time it's hard not to admire the ambition that drives such an approach, as well as Hooper's efforts to combine a rousing, old-fashioned musical tale with contemporary and immediate aesthetics. There's a lot of hand-held camerawork here, a lot of rushing and swooping through the crowded, volatile slums of Victor Hugo's 19th-century France.

Two years after the release of his inspiring, crowd-pleasing “The King's Speech,” winner of four Academy Awards including best picture, Hooper has vastly expanded his scope but also jettisoned all remnants of restraint.

But he also does something clever in asking his actors sing live on camera, rather than having them record their vocals in a booth somewhere as is the norm, and for shooting the big numbers in single takes. The intimacy can be uncomfortable at times and that closeness highlights self-indulgent tendencies, but the meaning behind lyrics which have become so well-known shines through anew. You'd probably heard “I Dreamed a Dream,” the plaintive ballad of the doomed prostitute Fantine, sung countless times even before Susan Boyle unfortunately popularized it again in 2009. An emaciated and shorn Anne Hathaway finds fresh pain and regret in those words because her rendition is choked with sobs, because it's not perfect.

That's definitely part of the fascination of this version of “Les Miserables”: seeing how these A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing. Hugh Jackman, as the hero and former prisoner Jean Valjean, is a musical theatre veteran and seems totally in command (although the higher part of his register gets a bit nasal and strained). Amanda Seyfried, as Fantine's daughter, Cosette, whom Jean Valjean adopts, had already proven she can sing in “Mamma Mia!” but hits some freakishly high notes here — which isn't always a good thing.

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 Director, cast take 'Step back to Glory' 
Seeing A-list stars handle the demands of near-constant singing is fascinating. (Courtesy of UIP)

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