'Les Miserables' movie relies on close-ups for emotional punch

* Film version stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway

* Musical debuted on stage 27 years ago

* Tale of dispossessed, revolutionaries is timely, director

says

NEW YORK, Dec 21 (Reuters) - For British director Tom

Hooper, the key to turning "Les Miserables" from the wildly

popular stage musical to a cinematic experience both sweeping

and intimate, was all in the close-up.

The stage musical has left audiences around the world wiping

away tears with its themes of justice, redemption and romantic

and familial love. So bringing it to life on screen for fans and

filmgoers was "hugely daunting," Hooper says.

Still, the Oscar-winning director of "The King's Speech,"

was ambitious, wanting to offer even more of the "intense

emotional experience" that has kept fans returning to various

stage productions since "Les Miserables" made its English

language debut 27 years ago.

"I felt very aware of the fact that so many millions of

people hold this close to their hearts and would probably sit in

the cinemas in complete fear," Hooper told reporters about his

big screen take on the tale of French revolutionaries rising up

against powerful forces.

Movie stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway

were all put through an intense audition and rehearsal process,

to make sure they could sing take after take, live, with cameras

positioned right in their face.

It also features a large ensemble including Amanda Seyfried

and Eddie Redmayne, as well as Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena

Bonham Carter who lead the comic relief song, "Master of the

House."

"I thought the great weapon in my arsenal was the close up,

because the one thing on stage that you can't enjoy is the

detail of what is going on in people's faces as they are

singing," Hooper said. "I felt (that) having to do a meditation

on the human face was by far the best way to bring out the

emotion of the songs."

That tactic may or may not have paid off for a movie that is

seen as one of the front runners for Oscar awards in February.

Early screenings of the film that opens on Christmas Day have

moved some audiences. Critics have praised the performances, but

given the movie as a whole less than top marks.

The movie reunites the same team that worked on the original

musical, including French composer Claude-Michel Schonberg,

lyricist Alain Boublil, and English language adapter Herbert

Kretzmer. It adds one original song to the existing show, which

includes the well-known "I Dreamed a Dream".

Jackman plays petty thief Jean Valjean, the protagonist of

the story based on French writer Victor Hugo's epic 1862

historical novel "Les Miserables." Valjean transforms himself

into a respected businessman but struggles for decades to escape

the clutches of his nemesis, police inspector Javert (Russell

Crowe), and along the way encounters factory worker Fantine

(Anne Hathaway).

TIMELY MESSAGE

Inspired by films such as 1991's "The Commitments," singing

was filmed live rather than later recorded in a studio to give

the movie a more authentic feel.

Hathaway lost 25 pounds (11.3 kg) for the role and cut her

long brown hair. She spent six months perfecting the task of

crying and singing at the same time for "I Dreamed a Dream" and

is a hot favorite for a best supporting actress Oscar.

In a twist of fate, Hooper had initially seen Hathaway

singing to Jackman a boisterous version of the "Les Miserables"

song "On My Own" at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, just when

he was trying to decide whether to direct the film and was

thinking about casting.

"I was sitting there, going: 'There is something very

strange happening'," he joked. "Whatever happened, it certainly

worked, because I ended up casting both of them."

Hooper said he took his inspiration mostly from Hugo's

novel rather than any one stage production, and thus saw Crowe's

Javert more as a "deeply honorable" character than a simplistic

"bad guy" as portrayed in some productions.

The time also felt right, he said, to bring the story to a

larger audience on the big screen.

"There are so many people hurting around the world because

of social, economic, inequality and inequity. There is such

anger against the system," he said, "whether it's the protests

on Wall Street or in London at St Paul's, or the seismic shifts

happening in the Middle East."

"'Les Miserables' is the great advocate of the

dispossessed," Hooper said. "It teaches you the way to

collective action is through passionate engagement with the

people around you. It starts with love for the person next to

you."

(Editing by Jill Serjeant and David Storey)

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