Friday, January 4, 2013

Les Miserables Movie Review

I saw Les Miserables on Broadway as part of a class trip in sixth grade. There are three observations I’d like to make after seeing Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation, with a screenplay by William Nicholson, of the stage musical. The first is that I’m surprised a public school took eleven-year olds to a play that features prostitution, suicide as a means of atoning for lack of mercy, and the innuendo-laced number “Master of the House.” The second is that the show must have made quite an impression on me because, although I only saw it that once, I have several vivid memories of the staging of certain scenes. The final observation, and the most noteworthy, is that it is a damn fine musical. It’s got some riveting numbers, many of them as emotionally moving as anything in the history of great musicals. Yes, it occasionally suffers from one of my biggest pet peeves about some musicals: lyrics that narrate action. But as in the great tradition of opera, Les Miserables is a sung-through show with hardly any spoken dialogue. When it’s on point, however, as in the songs that focus on the expression of deep emotion, it is thrilling and moving.

If you know nothing of the story, let the title be a minor spoiler – it’s not the happiest of stories. France in the early 19th century? Check. Hard labor prison sentences? Check. Prostituting oneself to survive? Check. Disease? Revolution? Needless death? Checks all. These characters have strong need for song, but this is not the kind of story that calls for dance. West Side Story is a more uplifting musical than this. The heart of the conflict is between Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread, who breaks parole and becomes a respectable factory owner, and Inspector Javert, the duty-bound policeman who pursues him and frequently crosses his path throughout the story.

Director Tom Hooper demanded that as much singing as possible be recorded on set. Knowing a little something about music recording, I can imagine what a logistical challenge that must have been, but it pays off with performances that are raw and bold. After all, this is designed as a stage musical where the actors would sing live without edits or room for error. The sentiment of the songs gets expressed in every aspect of the actors’ performances. The biggest standouts in the case in term of well-rounded performance are Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Anne Hathaway as the destitute Fantine. They are among the best singers in the film and they give acting performances to match. Hathaway sings her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” in a single unbroken take. Of course for a stage performer, an actress playing Fantine would do that night after night, but in a film I can’t think of another such example.

On the other end of the performing spectrum you have Russell Crowe as Javert and Amanda Seyfried as Fantine’s grown daughter Cosette. They are fine actors, but their voices are weak and not well-suited to this style of operatic drama. Eddie Redmayne as the revolutionary Marius does an admirable job, better than most of the cast, in fact. And Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen have fun chewing on the scenery as the Thenardiers, the innkeepers who continue to cause problems for Valjean and Cosette.

When Hooper employed abundant use of close up wide angle lens shots in The King’s Speech, I thought it was a means of conveying King George’s feeling of claustrophobia and that the walls were closing in around him. But he uses it as much, if not more, here. It is so overused it becomes distracting to have the actors’ faces plunged into the camera. It’s clear now after two movies that his is a directorial style, but I don’t know what he intends to express. His direction of the solo numbers tends to be much more retrained (the wide angle shots notwithstanding), allowing the actors to set the tone and the audience to be swept away. It’s the big production numbers that he has the most difficulty staging. Some of the editing is sloppy and doesn’t help focus attention on any particular characters for any meaningful length of time.

Still, in spite of the occasional overblown and bombastic stagings and choral renderings, Hooper and his team of art directors, set designers, and costumers have made a beautiful-looking film that calls to mind the stage while expanding it to cinematic scope. Cinematographer Danny Cohen could have pulled the camera back a little more often. There was a moment when I felt an overhead shot of the Paris streets showing the revolutionaries coming together would have been perfect. Alas, it wasn’t to be, but it was used later albeit less effectively than what could have been. None of this will really detract significantly from what is a rousing production and one that you will easily walk away from humming, if not outright singing, while you dry your moistened eyes.

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