The place is France, the year is 1815 and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is one of several dozen men grunting in chorus on a massive prison ship. The music swells, the waves pound and "Les Misérables" clearly promises to deliver a grand, glorious, widescreen version of the long-running stage musical.
That, however, is the last scene of its kind in "Les Misérables," which steadily diminishes in scale as it goes along. This is a big story, with big themes, based on Victor Hugo's really big novel about love, law and revolution in 19th-century France. Yet somehow, "Les Misérables" isn't the major movie event it should be.
You can't blame the all-singing, all-great-looking cast. Jackman is flat-out incredible, wringing every drop of agony from numbers like "What Have I Done?," while Anne Hathaway, as the battered seamstress Fantine, uses her shimmering eyes as much as her voice to conquer the show's signature song, "I Dreamed a Dream." Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried, as young lovers, mesh nicely; Samantha Barks, as third-wheel Éponine, movingly reprises her London stage role.
There's only scant comic relief from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as scurrilous innkeepers, but the weakest link is Russell Crowe as the merciless law enforcer Inspector Javert. Crowe's physical intensity is impressive, but his airy voice is noticeably weak -- odd, for an actor who has fronted a couple of rock bands.
The main problem is director Tom Hooper, who films each musical number, almost without exception, in close-up. Hooper bets everything on his actors, a strategy that earned him an Oscar for "The King's Speech." But he forgets the overall sense of, well, theater needed to adapt a musical like this one. "Les Misérables" works fine as a movie, but falls just short of spectacle.
PLOT The smash-hit musical about love, law and the Paris Uprising comes to the big screen.
RATING PG (brief sexuality, mild violence)
BOTTOM LINE Jackman's powerhouse performance carries this movie, which hits emotional heights but skimps on spectacle and grandeur. It's about three-quarters of the big event it should be.