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Broadway's best musical becomes year's best film

2012 has been a great year for good movies, but few – if any – have risen to the level of being “great.”

“Brave” was among the best, “Argo” was very good, “The Hobbit” was a good but not much better than that and “The Avengers” was very entertaining, but hardly “great” cinema.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there haven’t been some truly great moments captured on film.

Take Anne Hathaway’s performance in the Christmas Day-released movie “Les Miserables,” for example. Singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” Hathaway delivered not only the most captivating and gut-wrenching few moments of cinema this year, but perhaps one of the finest moments in moviemaking history. Yes, all 120 years plus of motion picture camera work. It’s that stunning, that jaw-dropping, that magnificent.

It helps that Hathaway’s performance is surrounded by the spellbinding story of “Les Miserables,” in my opinion the greatest musical ever performed on Broadway.

The tale follows the story of Jean Valjean, a released convict in early 1800’s France, who finds his criminal history relegates him to the streets, to the wandering, begging, “miserable” poor. When an unexpected moment of mercy graces Valjean’s life, he chooses to begin anew, clean, redeemed and devoted to God.

But the specter of the law, embodied by the policeman Javert, haunts Valjean, until the spectacular climax, set amid the Paris Uprising of 1832, when Valejean’s adopted daughter fears the boy she loves will be killed in the revolution and Valjean must battle the French army, Javert, the sewers and his own heart to protect his daughter’s future.

It’s nothing short of an epic tale, in a setting and scene as spectacular as any ever staged, with music that both inspires and tears the heart to shreds.

The “Les Miserables” Hathaway appears in, however – as the adopted girl’s destitute mother – is the movie version, not the stage version, and though I still rank it among the year’s best films, the movie has its flaws.

The film, to its credit, is also a musical and sticks closely to the Broadway version, keeping most of its soaring music and even clarifying some of the more confusing points with solid performances.

Actor Hugh Jackman does admirably as Valjean, lesser-known Eddie Redmayne is impressive as the daughter’s love interest, Marius, and Hathaway as Fantine is … I have no superlative in my vocabulary that adequately describes her performance.

But the film does fall short in a few ways, including an inconsistent performance from Russell Crowe – who can play the character Javert but struggled at times with the singing – and the director’s decision to move the camera in to extreme close-ups during almost every song. Yes, at times (such as Fantine’s fall into prostitution or Valjean’s moment of redemption) the close-ups portray a depth of emotion you can’t see on the stage, but at other times, the grand, sweeping scope of the story was lost for all the camera’s attention on individual performances.

I also vehemently disagree with dirtying this film with actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s presence as Thenardier, a base and lascivious character as it is, one that was made even more bawdy in the movie than in the musical. “Les Misearables” is already a bit seedy and gritty; it didn’t need more sex to sell it. It’s very unfortunate, because I had really hoped to take some of my children to see this powerful story, but now I’ll have to wait until they’re older, if at all.

And it is a powerful story. “Les Miserables” is nothing short of a metaphor for the gospel of Christ.

Valjean is a man who committed the smallest of understandable crimes, but is forever stained and condemned by the law, a poignant picture of our wretched state before a holy and perfect God. But even in that wretched state, sinner that his is, even while he was in the act of stealing from his redeemer, still his redeemer comes and buys Valjean’s freedom, a picture of God’s love in Romans 5:8 (“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”). Thus, Valjean is inspired to live a life of goodness anew, not to earn his salvation, but in gratitude for it.

In the end, we see a grand and final climax, where the condemnation of the law is put to death to make room for a world of both justice and mercy, a place where grace can give a man a second chance.

Valjean’s desperate prayers are the cries of any sinner’s heart, and his story is so rife with biblical metaphor and parable, that when coupled with musical and theatrical artistry at its finest, “Les Miserables” – even if you have to settle for the film instead of the musical on tour – is one of the few tales I would suggest every person must see, must experience at some point in their life.

Just make sure you’re mature and discerning enough for some of its seedier content.

Content advisory: