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Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

I am in no way a movie musical fan. I’ve enjoyed a few in my time, including the recent Tim Burton adaptation of Sweeney Todd and the always wonderful The Music Man, but I generally shy away as, is often the case, the quality of the film is more dependent on the quality of the music rather than any emotional attachment the story itself may stir in its viewers. In the live theater setting, this works better, as its rawer and more genuine than the glossy product evident in Hairspray or any of the High School Musical films. The news that Director Tom Hooper’s take on the Broadway mainstay Les Miserables would incorporate live singing rather than pre-recorded pieces, along with a cast chosen for its ability to evoke emotional material, was welcome news to my ears. As someone who isn’t completely convinced of Tom Hooper’s talents behind the camera, and who generally disliked The King’s Speech, anything that could get me excited for this project is something of note. So, did it work?

The answer is a resounding: kind’ve. The tale is broken up into 3 acts, exactly like its stage counterpart. The first act details Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his being freed from prison in 1815 France after a 19 year long prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a member of his family. After being on the receiving end of some undeserved kindness, Valjean decides to change his name and live an honorable life, while avoiding persuit by French Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). The second act opens eight years later, with Valjean becoming a well to do factory owner and mayor of a small town in France. Valjean risks capture when he attempts to save Fatine (Anne Hathaway), a unjustly fired worker at his factory turned prostitute, from Javert’s intolerant sense of justice. As Fatine has taken deathly ill, Valjean carries her to the local hospital and promises to care for her daughter Cosette who is currently in the care of two inn-keepers of ill-repute (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). By the third act, taking place 9 years later, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is now nearing adult age and living with Valjean as his adopted daughter. Their lives are complicated by her attraction to Marius (Eddie Redmayne) a young leader of Parisian revolutionaries, the romantic pinings for Marius from Eponine (Samantha Barks), whose advances are left unrequited, and Javert’s encroaching pursuit of Valjean while a massive revolution is on the verge of igniting.
The scope of the film is massive, covering a large chunk of time and lensing a dramatic telling of one of the most important events in French history. The art direction is suitable for this ambition and is one of the biggest positives of the film. Everything feels appropriately large without being too over the top. Watching the initial sweeps of the French city-scape in each succeeding act is really quite a wonder, and by the third act when the drums of revolution are beating down, the massive singing cast feels like a true citizen army and it provides one of the most believeable moments of the entire experience.

The cast generally delivers as promised, as has been anticipated by most, Hathaway is the highlight. Her part, while smaller than the media campaign surrounding the film would have you believe, leaves an impressive mark. One of the most inspired moments of the film is that while singing the generally show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream”, Hooper elects to have Hathaway perform the song in one unbroken take focused on her face as she literally breaks down into unbridled emotion mid-song. It’s a take where I found myself holding my breath the entire time the camera was trained on her. It’s by far the single-best moment film, it unfortunately comes so early that, while coming close in parts, nothing else really matches it. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar was likely won on that take alone. Jackman gives a strong, multi-faceted performance. Jackman is fairly effectively aged throughout each act, and he portrays each version of Valjean well. In a way, what is required of Jackman is akin to the work he was enlisted for in The Fountain, with obviously lesser grand ambitions in character evolution. It’s impressive work even if he does veer into hamminess in small spurts. The other performer whose work will likely go unnoticed by awards bodies is that of Eddie Redmayne, who as Marius, probably does the strongest job of avoiding going “too big” with the songs and effectively mixing dialogue and singing patterns to create a very believable bit of work that I found very arresting, though his penchant to go into vibrato every few notes was a bit of a small annoyance but that’s personal preference. Barks and Seyfried are fine in their parts, but do very little to distinguish themselves, particularly Seyfried who certainly has a lovely voice but the part as written feels like it could have been played by any blonde stage actress. Cohen and Carter provide some much need levity in the middle of what is a very heavy emotional toil, while their singing is a bit hit and miss, the humor itself is welcome enough on its own.

As Javert, Russell Crowe is physically intimidating and has a wonderful look for the part, despite that he never seems to age from act to act. The problem is that his vocal work is not well suited for the film. His voice isn’t outright bad, but one can feel Crowe’s discomfort with the material and his two big numbers come across as hurried and belted in an almost audition-like style without much character incorporation, Javert just feels blank at those moments and you become quickly aware that you’re watching an actor perform, a cardinal sin. The major problem with the whole proceeding is Hooper himself. Rather than allowing us to absorb the beautiful set work through the more relaxed style of The King’s Speech, he opts for disorienting camera angles and a more jittery style that creates a sense of annoyance. You’ll begin to think “why did he shoot there?” “why did he focus on that?” and “why is the camera moving so damn much?” rather than allowing his audience to be swept up in the era. Additionally, while his choice of up-close camera work was well placed for Hathaway’s big moment, he repeats this same decision ad nauseum and to very limited effect with everyone else, big character pieces are telegraphed the moment an actor’s face is zoomed into slightly off-center. The film simply feels over-directed in parts and often to its detriment. By the third act, a sense of fatigue both aurally and visually starts to creep in, which is luckily saved by a wonderful finish.
Despite that, Les Miserables has many beautiful moments that are hard to deny. Even I, who rarely gets choked up at films, felt the stirrings of eye-welling by the film’s climax which presents one of Jackman’s finest moments and the perfectly rendered version of “Do You Hear The People Sing?”. On the whole, the film works, particularly from some of its standout performances, it just could have been so much better and feels like a bit of a lost opportunity.

 I give it 2.5 out of 4 stars (or a B- if you prefer).
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  1. Russell Crowe was my least-favorite part of Les Mis. I agree: I was watching an actor perform -- or, try to, anyway.

    I was blown away by Anne Hathaway, and really impressed by Hugh Jackman's control of his voice -- he's clearly not a Broadway singer of the caliber of other stage Les Mis performers, but he seems to really know his ability and work with what he has. And of course his acting more than made up for any lack vocally.

    My me, as a huge musical theater fan, this was one of my favorite musical-to-film productions ever. Not perfect, but I do think it set a new standard.

    Loved your review! :)

    1. Thanks so much! I totally agree with you on the performance side of things. I actually appreciated the casting of actors first, singers second, as I think musicals like Sweeney Todd (Anthony, ugh) and Hairspray were more concerned with people's vocal range in some roles than their ability to emote.

      I can see the appeal of the story, having never seen Les Mis before and having no familiarity with it, and I think the live singing should definitely be the go-to industry choice once they iron out some of the mixing issues that I think plagued Les Mis a bit, at least in the theater I saw it in.


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