By: Mary Fran Bontempo

Epic. Astounding. Awe-inspiring. Fill in the superlative of your choice.

The movie version of Les Miserables, the most extraordinary play ever staged (okay, I’m a fanatic), is incredible. And I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

I’ve seen the play at least six times, and I’d go to see it again tomorrow. So the movie had some big shoes to fill to reach the barre, let alone surpass it. Which I don’t think it did, but still.

The musical version of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece tells the story of Jean Valjean, a recently freed prisoner who reaches a crossroads when he is caught stealing from a priest after his release. (Les Mis devotees will recognize Colm Wilkinson, London’s original Jean Valjean, as the priest who saves the movie’s Valjean.) The priest exonerates Valjean, who then dedicates his life to God, taking on a new identity and then the care of the orphaned Cossette, raising her as his own. But Inspector Javert remains hot on the trail of Valjean, who has broken parole. Through the passing of years, Javert remains in pursuit of Valjean, and the chase is only halted when the now-grown Cossette falls in love with Marius, a student and fighter in the people’s revolution against the French government.

I don’t know anyone who has seen the play who doesn’t become an instant devotee. The story is compelling, the music, at turns beautiful, haunting and soaring. And it’s not an easy play to perform.

The voices make the stage production. A weak voice undermines the play. Fortunately, the grand sweep of the movie’s scenery and more important, close ups of the actors’ faces, makes up for some of the weakness in the lack of vocal prowess. Some, but not all.

Hugh Jackman as Valjean is fabulous. A song and dance man as well as matinee idol, Jackman handles the musical numbers fairly well, but it is the emotion he brings to the role that makes him a wonderfully strong, yet tender Valjean. Likewise, Ann Hathaway, who is incredible as Fantine, Cossette’s disgraced mother. Hathaway brings a poignancy to the role that is augmented by her skill in playing to the camera.

Further, Eddie Redmayne (My Week With Marilyn), is simply a revelation as Marius, Cossette’s love interest. Unlike Jackman and Hathaway, Redmayne shines across the board, bringing Maruis fully to life in action and song in a part that often appears to be enhanced window dressing in the play.

The one major misstep in the production is the casting of Russell Crowe as Javert. Simply put, Crowe can’t sing worth a lick, and the part requires a major vocal powerhouse. Nor does Crowe adequately convey Javert’s menace. While the inspector is cold-hearted, Crowe plays him like a frozen cardboard cutout.

Unfortunately, Amanda Seyfried, as Cossette, is also at a vocal disadvantage, sounding uncomfortably like a chipmunk with her tremulous vibrato. Her porcelain skin and gigantic eyes couldn’t make up for her distracting (read: annoying) voice.The casting of Sacha Baron Cohen as corrupt innkeeper, Thenardier? It doesn’t really work, but it’s not horrible.

But these flaws are mere bumps in an otherwise masterful film. The movie captures the grit and grimness of the time in a way the play can’t, while affording the actors an opportunity to share deep emotion with the audience.

Yet, if you haven’t seen the play, you really must. The film is no substitute, but it comes close. Very, very close.

Check out the trailer below.