Is the new movie of Les Miserables attempting something revolutionary?
Yes, it's the star-studded film adaptation of the stage mega-musical seen by nearly 60 million theatre-goers since its West End debut in 1985. But English director, Tom Hooper - in his first feature since winning an Oscar for The King's Speech - hasn't just been plonked the theatre production in a re-creation of post-Napoleonic France. He's chosen to have his cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried, sing their roles live on set, using the raw vocal tracks performed in front of the camera (mixed with an orchestral backing) rather than recording them in a studio and have them lip-sync.
That's how all musicals were once made but Hooper catches much of those performances in unforgiving close-up. So his big-screen version might be disconcerting to both fans of the stage show and those whose experience of screen musicals extends only to the recent likes of Chicago and Mamma Mia!
Early reviews have been mixed, though Les Miserables has figured heavily in nominations for the Golden Globes and Screen Actors' Guild Awards.
On promotional duties for the film in New York, Jackman, a stage musical veteran, defended Hooper's approach.
"Tom obviously knows the show well and he enhanced it. When Anne Hathaway sings I Dreamed a Dream, it's a three-minute close-up. It's highly theatrical and feels like you're at a live show, but instead of being in the front row of a theatre, you are there," he says, holding his hand centimetres from his face. "I think Tom was smart in knowing how to film it."
Victor Hugo's classic novel, first published in 1862, follows the lives of several characters. Chief among them is Jean Valjean (Jackman), a tragic hero jailed for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving children. Freed, he breaks parole and spends the rest of his life on the run from the ruthless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
"To me, the role of Jean Valjean is right up there with Hamlet, says Jackman. "I know it's highly sought-after and I feel very lucky to have got it. I feel a sense of satisfaction, although I am sure I will look at the film and think, 'I wish I had done this or that differently', but I know on the day I couldn't have done more preparation for it."
Anne Hathaway plays the tragic figure of Fantine, a factory-worker-turned-prostitute who sings I Dreamed a Dream - the song revived by Susan Boyle in her talent show rise to fame.
For her, it was a very personal role. As a child she watched her mother perform the same role in a touring production of Les Miserables, and now that she has stepped into her shoes, life has come full circle.
"Talking about the film has made me realise that, that early experience of seeing my mother play Fantine, made the whole story very real for me. Of course, I never knew at the time that my soul had fused with this music, but for it to come back and enter my life in the way that it has means so much to me. I had an inherent empathy for this character and what she goes through," she says.
Hathaway famously chopped off her hair to play the character, as well as losing approximately 12kg. "The weight loss was hard and I wouldn't recommend it. For the hair, I had butterflies about cutting it but I knew it was the right choice," she says. "And then, within an hour of having it off, I was fine with it. Generally speaking, I accept reality for what it is. I don't spend a lot of time wishing things were different."
To provide some comic relief against this backdrop of oppressive squalor is Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who have some fun with their take on playing Monsieur and Madame Thenardier.
Samantha Barks, a veteran of Broadway and the West End, plays their daughter in her big-screen debut. She's been playing this role of the lovelorn Eponine on stage for the past four years. "I couldn't believe it when I found out they were to be my parents. They've got to be the world's coolest couple ever onscreen. It was actually very hard for me not to laugh in scenes with them. They are so genius. I'm in awe of them."
In the previous non-musical adaptation of Les Miserables, in 1988, starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Geoffrey Rush, the character of Eponine was cut out of the film.
Explains Barks, "The role of Eponine doesn't make any difference to Valjean's storyline. Thankfully, Tom Hooper found a good way of intertwining all the themes into Valjean's central plot. I would have been so upset if she were cut out again."
Bringing in the romance factor is the handsome Eddie Redmayne as the politically-minded Marius, and the doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia, Dear John) as Cosette.
Redmayne thinks there similarities between an unsettled 19th century Europe and today's current economic climate.
"When we were shooting, there were uprisings going on all over the world on a daily basis. It felt very resonant as you'd see young people trying to light the flame, as it were, uprising about the Occupy Wall St protests. It seemed that what Victor Hugo said all those years ago seemed to communicate to every generation."
What: Les Miserables
When and where: Opens at cinemas on January 10