The film's greatest strengths are the source material (those amazing songs!) and the musical performances. Jackman is engrossing as Valjean, transforming from a gaunt prisoner to an elderly recluse before our eyes, singing his guts out along the way. Though her role is relatively small, Hathaway is riveting as Fantine. Her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" left me emotionally gutted and in awe. Another standout is Eddie Redmayne as Marius (Cosette's love interest when she's grown). The combination of his strong tenor and his moving emotion is powerful.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are expertly cast as the Thénardiers, the shady innkeepers who care for young Cosette while Fantine works and sends them all her money. They provide needed comic relief without overplaying it or scrimping on the singing. I wasn't as fond of Crowe as Javert. He never really sold me as the rigid rule-follower, especially with his soft, kind of warm-hearted vocals. And Seyfried as Cosette struck me as a bit breathy.
But the biggest detraction of the film is the filming itself. Most of the shots are close-ups of the person singing. While the scenes are beautifully framed and lit, and it's a powerful treatment for the soaring ballads, after a while there's a certain monotony—and a bit of a claustrophobic feeling. I kept wanting to scoot back, to take in the whole scene. I mean, this is a movie set during a war. A movie with huge themes that impact all of society. And in the precious few scenes where we do see the setting and the staging, it is clear the filmmakers crafted something grand. If only we'd been allowed to enjoy them more.
A movie version of Les Mis, as opposed to the stage, could have shown the scope of the poverty and revolution that gripped the streets of Paris. Why bring such a story to the big screen if you aren't going to make an already huge production even bigger? You can see amazing actors, stellar singing, and well-appointed costumes on Broadway or in the West End. A movie on this scale ought to promise, and deliver, something more.
Thankfully the songs and their performers mostly overcome this disappointingly small scope. By the end of the film, as nearly the entire cast is singing perhaps my favorite line from both the musical and the book—"To love another person is to see the face of God"—I was in tears. And grateful for another chance to experience this moving story, these beautiful portrayals of faith, and these amazing songs.