Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Review: Les Miserables

Les Miserables
Directed by: Tom Hooper.
Written by: William Nicholson based on the musical by Herbert Kretzmer Claude-Michel Schönberg  & Alain Boublil based on the novel by Victor Hugo.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Colm Wilkinson (Bishop), Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette).

Les Miserables is one of the most beloved musicals of all time (just ask my wife, you knows every song by heart). It is a musical of big, bold emotions with soaring songs and a huge cast. I understand why some would find the whole thing tiresome, but I also understand why some are completely in love with it. It took years for this film version to get made – and while it does not make a seamless transition, this is still a big, bold, old fashioned musical, which tries very hard to make the emotional resonance of the film more realistic. And while at times these two elements – the epic, old school scope of the film, and the more raw, stripped down emotion that director Tom Hooper tries for, at times fight each other, overall I have to say that the film won be over.

The story is well known to all. In the years around the French Revolution, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) spends 19 years as a prisoner doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. When he is finally released, he struggles to get his life back, because he has been branded a “dangerous offender”. A kind hearted Bishop takes pity on him, and even refuses to turn him in when he steals all the Church’s silver under one condition – he must use his ill-gotten gains to become a better man. Valjean tries hard to be that good man – he even becomes the mayor of a small town, and a business owner. And this is when his old nemesis Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) shows up. He is obsessed with tracking down Valjean, and thinks this seemingly respectful man could be him. The movie contains several subplots as well – the most tragic is that of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a struggling single mother who needs to earn money to support her daughter – and will do anything to get it. That daughter will eventually be adopted by Valjean. The films second act takes place mainly at a barricade in Paris, where a group of students have taken over. Valjean, now in hiding once again with Fantine’s now grown daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who falls in love at first sight with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), one of those Revolutionary students – much to the chagrin of Eponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the amoral innkeeper and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). All of these characters will come crashing together at these barricades.

Some of the directorial choices made by Tom Hooper are likely to draw criticism. This is apparently the first musical to have the actors sing live on set instead of a lip synching to a prerecorded track. This gives the music a more realistic feel, which are both a good thing and at times, a not so good thing. Also, Hooper chooses to film many of the songs in close-up on the actor’s face, which is pretty much the opposite of what seeing the musical on stage – where you see everything. For a song like I Dreamed a Dream, the result is a true tour-de-force by Anne Hathaway. This is truly one of the most powerful, emotional scenes of the year. With her shaved head, and the close-up that doesn’t leave her face, and doesn’t cut, I couldn’t help but think of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, which used close-ups of Maria Falconetti’s pained face to masterful effect. The same is true here, and Hathaway will likely win a well-deserved Oscar for her trouble. In the second act, Samantha Barks gets a similar moment with her heartbreaking rendition of On My Own, which she owns (it probably helps she played the role on stage). Strangely, this is one of the few songs that Hooper allows to open up a little more, and allows more movement. This doesn’t diminish the impact of the song however.

I will say though that Hooper certainly overuses the close-up in this film though, Most of the movie is shot in this style, and while at the best moments, it works magnificently, there are times when a little more movement and flow could have benefited the movie. The film is a bold, brash, emotional, old fashioned epic – and it loses some of that with all the close-ups.

And not all the performances truly work either. Hugh Jackman is just about perfect as Jean Valjean. He has the voice capable of pulling off the difficult vocal role, and for the first time, he gets a chance to truly show his dramatic range – and makes the most of it. Eddie Redmayne does what he can with Marius, as does Amanda Seyfried with Cosette, but the truth is, they are stuck playing the standard issue stupid, young lovers who don’t know each other, but are still hopelessly, head over heels in love. And I have already sung the praises of the great performances of Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks. But Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are not very good singers – and the live singing exposes that a little bit. It isn’t a major problem, since they are used mainly for comic relief – and because the plot requires them to show up in odd places at odd times to move the story along. Then there is Russell Crowe as Javert. While Crowe, a terrific actor, does have the chops to play the role dramatic, giving Javert the obsessive quality he needs, his singing voice is more appropriate for rock than Broadway – and it shows. Javert is a great role, but when Crowe is asked to carry a few songs on his own, he doesn’t quite pull it off.
Overall though, I have to say that Les Miserables won me over. Some of the directorial choices are strange, some of the performances not quite up to snuff, and the movie kind of runs low on steam in the final act (it is nearly three hours long). And yet, Les Miserables is the kind of old fashioned, epic musical that Hollywood doesn’t make at all anymore. It takes chances and risks, and for the most part, it pulls it off. While Les Miserables has its flaws, its best moments are as good as anything you will see this year.

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