Most people interested enough to read this review already know the musical storyline of Les Miserables (here's a quick refresher if you need one), and the movie (thankfully) is quite faithful to it. That said, I'll jump right into my observations and you can accept or reject whatever you like (feel free to leave comments below concerning either).
Hugh Jackman is always good, and while his acting is stellar as hero Jean Valjean, I was hoping for more vocally. Jackman is a huge talent and I'm not sure anyone else (in Hollywood, that is) could have pulled off half the performance he does, but his voice is not nearly as full as his Broadway or West End predecessors, particularly on the higher stuff ("Bring Him Home" seemed really pinched vocally). Still, he is very smooth to watch and completely believeable, both as convict and Christian, and while the only other Jackman song that somewhat disappoints vocally is "One Day More," it's probably more due to the choreography than anything (Jean Valjean seems slightly emasculated as he repeats the song's main line from the window of a moving horse-drawn carriage).
Russell Crowe is way out of his league as Javert, and there are some downright painful moments watching and listening to him play the self-righteous constable pursuing Valjean. My sense is Crowe got it in his mind that, because of Javert's strict adherence to the letter of the law, he was going to act and sing that way…and he does. Unfortunately, his face needs little help help playing dull, and his voice is just not interesting enough to be interesting (for those who know me, imagine if I were playing the role and you'd get about the same quality of performance).
Anne Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is indeed powerful and amazing to watch, but as much because of Tom Hooper's directing choices as her performance (though she is fantastic). As he did with Valjean's conversion scene at the beginning of the film, Hooper goes all Scorsese and films one long take with Hathaway's Fantine. What makes this effective in both scenes is that he has Jackman and Hathaway sing close up and right into the camera, which makes for a very intimate experience. Make no mistake, both Jackman and Hathaway make the most of these scenes (easily their best, and will surely earn them Oscar nominations), but they are most definitely elevated by Hooper's direction.
The other Hollywood-recognizable names in the show (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Amanda Seyfried) all do well enough, and the kids who play Cosette and Gavroche are wonderful. But as is always true with live theater, the secondary and background actors in this movie are really the ones who steal the show, as they had to rely on talent (and not just name alone) to actually get (and keep) the job. Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Samantha Barks (Epinone), and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) all turn in top performances, and it was a nice touch to have the original (and personal favorite) Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, play the role of the Bishop who forgives Valjean.
Much has been made of how Hooper went about filming this musical, recording the vocals live on set and then replacing the piano that tracked the actors with a full orchestra later. While this approach certainly benefits Jackman's and Hathaway's aforementioned key scenes, it also causes a fair amount of what feels like phasing at times, particularly when Jackman starts too many songs with spoken (rather than sung) lyrics or when Crowe is simply trying to keep up. Here the music suffers, and even if the audience may not know the show's score at all, I imagine they may feel a bump or two.
We took all four of our girls (9, 10, 12, almost 14) as they are all big fans of the soundtrack, and I was probably more uncomfortable with the few sensual scenes than the greater number of violent ones. That said, none of the scenes (sensual or violent) are graphic or gratutitous, and all are contextualized to the story being told; redemption, after all, requires redeeming what is not supposed to be. We want our kids to see, feel, and talk with us about these hard things even when they're hard to watch, but some parents may not share our conviction on the matter. (Note: The film's rated PG-13 for those who care about such things.)
One of the good discussions we all had on the way home was the end of the film and its transition of "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from a call to revolution to a call to Heaven. As Jean Valjean peacefully passes away (escorted by an angelic Fantine), he joins the ranks of those who fought and died on the side of the revolution in celebration of new freedom and spiritual existence. The scene is hardly ethereal or weird, but it is a big one and presumes a universalist take on salvation, namely that everyone who has died has (of course) gone to a better place. As our kids asked questions and pointed out the problems with this assumption, we had the opportunity to discuss how a sentimental universalist view of Heaven may make for a warm and fuzzy movie ending, but it does not line up with true and accurate biblical theology.
Is Les Miserables worth 157 minutes of your life? Yes. Is it perfect? No, but impefection never stopped Jean Valjean (and it shouldn't stop you from going to see and hear his story). Leave a comment and let me know what you think if/when you do.