Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Misérables / ***½ (PG-13)

Jean Valjean: Hugh Jackman
Javert: Russell Crowe
Marius: Eddie Redmayne
Fantine: Anne Hathaway
Cosette: Amanda Seyfried
Thénardier: Sacha Baron Cohen
Madam Thénardier: Helena Bonham Carter
Enjolras: Aaron Tveit
Éponine: Samantha Barks
Young Cosette: Isabelle Allen
Gavroche: Daniel Huttlestone

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Tom Hooper. Written by William Nicholson and Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Based on the musical by Schönberg & Boublil and the novel by Victor Hugo. Running time: 157 min. Rated PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements).

I think perhaps it may be necessary to contextualize myself to fully understand my thoughts on the new film version of “Les Misérables”. I was a theater major in college. I was a unique theater specimen, as I didn’t really like watching theatrical productions. It seemed to be an unstated requirement, and a reasonable one, of the theater major to hold some degree of obsession over current theatrical trends. Growing up in the 80’s made the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel about the volatile times in France between revolutions, “Les Misérables”, one of the biggest obsessions among my contemporaries. I read the book but had little interest in seeing the musical. I never did see it. I think I might be the type of audience for which the film version exists.

Stage plays are an entirely different medium of dramatic art than film. As such, the approach to the same material must differ. Tom Hooper’s much anticipated film is unique in the approach taken to create it, resulting in a unique musical film experience. It is an experience that does the source material justice—both sources; although as a musical, it certainly leans toward the musical.

The story follows Jean Valjean, a criminal who spent 19 years as a slave for stealing a loaf of bread. He is paroled by the police officer Javert. Despite his hatred of this world that spit him out and trampled him for such a small criminal act, Valjean is moved by an act of kindness to change his ways and become a man of good. In order to do this, he must shed his criminal past by skipping on his parole and leading a life under a false identity. This creates a lifelong enemy in Javert, who will hunt Valjean for the rest of his days.

In his new life, Valjean is compelled to promise the factory worker Fantine, whom he has inadvertently wronged, to care for her daughter, Cosette. The two become each other’s family. After Cosette has grown, a new revolt threatens to expose Valjean when the revolutionary Marius falls in love with her. All the while, Javert relentlessly pursues Valjean.

Director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) approaches the material from the same gritty bowels of the French Revolution's aftermath that Hugo approached it from in his novel. He opens the film with its grandest set piece. He suggests the dashed legacy of the Napoleon’s reign with thousands of slaves hauling a destroyed war ship into a wharf. It is easy to see why Valjean feels the world hates him. Many of the set pieces throughout tell the tale of a beaten and abused France, reflecting the views of the revolutionaries who feel they must rise. It is a dirty and soiled business. Only the buttoned down Javert is clean in his uniform.

The casting and performances also reflect this vision. Russell Crowe is the perfect rigid militant, who somehow gains our sympathy as a man who is only doing his job by the end. Crowe’s voice probably isn’t as strong as it should be for the role, but his stuffy delivery also plays toward his severe nature. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are also perfectly cast in their comically villainous roles as Thénardier and his wife.

Cosette is the only purely beautiful thing in this world, and while Amanda Seyfried isn’t given much to work with, she does posses the physical and vocal beauty necessary for that one task. Samantha Barks, the one hold over from an actual stage production of the musical, shares Seyfried’s beauty but effectively conveys one of the film’s most heartbreaking stories as Éponine, who loves Marius despite his love for Cosette, with the most beautiful song of the lot, “On My Own”. Both females’ beauty is matched by Eddie Redmayne’s heartfelt performance as Marius.

It is Hugh Jackman that must carry most of the emotional load of the film, however, as Valjean. His physical transformation is nearly as remarkable as many of cinematic history’s greatest performances. His voice matches the emotional strain he endures. I could see some complaining that his voice might sound too strained, perhaps because he invests so much emotion into the role; but it didn’t bother me.

Anne Hathaway, as the doomed Fantine, is asked to take the greatest risks in her journey, however. Fantine has the greatest fall over the shortest amount of time. This puts a large burden on the performer to take the audience on a sudden trip. I’ve heard a great deal of criticism about Hathaway’s performance that seems to me can only be explained as pithy bitterness and a need for some to criticize the success of others. Her vocal solo for “I Dreamed a Dream” is perhaps the best cinematic vocal performance I’ve ever seen. I’m sure I will be derided by her detractors for saying so.

Perhaps the disparagement of the performances comes from Hooper’s choice to have the actors sing their parts live for the camera, rather than using the more commonly practiced cinematic approach of prerecording the singing and having the actors lip sync on set. I’m sure some will argue that a stage performance requires live singing as well, but on a stage everything is focused on the vocal performance. The close scrutiny of the camera requires a deeper commitment from the actor’s entire instrument. The element most heavily focused on by Hooper is the emotional inner workings of the characters. He places his camera right in the actors’ faces and they deliver emotion on the same level of spoken word speeches while singing their every feeling. The effect is devastating.

While I do feel the film is a phenomenal achievement of realizing this musical version of “Les Misérables”, I do have some issues with the musical production source material. Perhaps some of these problems come in the adaptation, but there are several holes in the script. Cosette is a dreadfully underwritten character, especially considering her importance to the plot. There are a great many issues left up in the air concerning the relationship between Éponine and her parents, the untrustworthy innkeepers Thénardier and his wife. Why is she so good when they are so bad? And, Javert is left woefully underdeveloped, with little explanation of what makes him tick. If he treats everyone the same, why don’t we get to see him be as harsh on anyone else as he is on Valjean? Why don’t we see any other representation of the law as contrast against Javert?

Despite these quibbles, “Les Misérables” is a remarkable cinematic experience. It may be the best movie that could’ve been made from this difficult material. It plays true to both its sources—the Victor Hugo novel and the popular musical stage production. There is no doubt that it will receive a number of much deserved nominations from the awards circuit. It is a monumental achievement in cinema of a monumental achievement in stage and writing. So someone hand me a flag and get back, because I might just burst into song.

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