THERE'S no denying that Les Miserables – whether on page, stage or screen – is an emotional experience.

Something to do with the gripping storyline, the raw plight of the characters, the near-relentless squalor of its setting. I watched Tom Hooper's film on Sunday and, right at the end, there occured something I hadn't heard in a cinema for many years, if ever: a round of applause.

It lasted maybe 10 seconds. It wasn't a standing ovation, but neither was it self-conscious. It followed on from what had happened at intervals throughout the film, with people dabbing at their tears.

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Audience appreciation of a rowdier sort was witnessed at an advance showing of the film in New York last November – applause after each song, and a standing ovation at the climax. Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius in the film, was there, and it took him a while to realise that the rustling noise round about him was in fact the sound of film-goers using their hankies.

It was the same, more recently, at the London premiere, while in the provinces, at least one cinema chain has reported seeing "very engaged audiences" clapping after every song. On the film's Twitter account, fans have posted such messages as "Amazing. Cried the entire movie." You can watch, online, a video of a middle-aged couple's emotional response to the film. The dad delivers a great line: "We've been to funerals where we've been less upset."

What is going on here? For all its great reviews and award nominations, Les Mis has its critics, who dislike what they see as the banality of the songs and the manipulative bombast of the entire show. More to the point, the outbreaks of tears and applause have raised critical eyebrows in a manner close to condescension. "It's almost a knee-jerk thing," one film writer has suggested. "People want to pretend they're having the same experience as if the musical was on stage, so clap after the song, especially if they know it."

That's one theory. Another, more persuasive, is that, while familiarity with the plot and the songs doubtless help, it's obvious that the storyline does pack an extraordinary emotional punch. But the masterstroke was Hooper's decision to record the actors singing live, which allows them to put nuance and intensity into their performances. It's this, I think, that sets the seal on a remarkable film.