Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Review: "Les Misérables"

Les Misérables is my favourite musical. For me, it features the absolute best soundtrack. And as I stated before, I was skeptical about seeing Tom Hooper's cinematic adaptation. I was initially disapproving of the choice to enlist so-called A-list celebrities in major roles. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe are decent, if not somewhat ill-suited musically, but Anne Hathaway is incredible as the tragic Fantine (and her performance of I Dreamed a Dream is a tearjerker). As the final credits rolled, I had the reaction to Les Misérables that I had expected. I liked it, I did not love it, and I was quite disappointed by a few stylistic choices (and Sacha Baron Cohen's terrible performance as M. Thénardier). Tom Hooper (undeserving of his Oscar for Best Director for the over-praised The King's Speech (2010)) made a mistake shooting the film in close ups. The grandeur of the story was lost by the camera's inability to pan out to highlight the entire cast, which completely took away from the production values of a musical. Two of the the musical's biggest numbers, Lovely Ladies and Master of the House, which involve large parts of the cast, were the weakest moments of the film because of Hooper's decision to focus on single characters with a zooming camera. Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel that became the award-winning 1985 London stage production (based on a French musical staged in 1980), tells the story of revolutionary France through a seventeen year period in the early 1800s. The musical omits quite a lot of material from Hugo's story (including whole characters and background information), and it is the emotional resonance of the music that made Les Misérables one of the most influential stage productions of the 20th century. Tom Hooper tried to take Les Misérables and convert it with his wide-lens close ups. This approach worked during two numbers, the aforementioned I Dreamed a Dream, and Eponine's rain-drenched On My Own. I knew it would be impossible for Tom Hooper's adaptation to win me over, and no matter how incredibly styled the film is, and no matter how incredible the performances from Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks (and a slew of other supporting actors), Les Misérables is a beautiful disappointment.

We first meet Jean Valjean (Jackman) in 1815. He has spent nineteen years in prison for stealing bread to feed his sister's family. Understanding that he will never find work due to his criminal past, Jean Valjean breaks his parole and chooses to live an honest life with a new identity. Javert (Crowe), the prison guard turned policeman, devotes his life's work to imprisoning Jean Valjean once again. Eight years later, Jean Valjean has become the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, where he is also the owner of a local factory. The factory manager has just discovered that Fantine (Hathaway) has an illegitimate daughter, and she ends up losing her job. She turns to a life of prostitution so that she can continue to support Cosette (Isabelle Allen, later played by Amanda Seyfried), who is living with the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and their daughter Eponine (Natalya Angel Wallace, later played by Samantha Barks). A chance meeting leads Jean Valjean to believe that he is Cosette's only hope just as he is rediscovered by Javert.

I will not dwell on how Tom Hooper's directorial choices limit the profundity of the story except to say that I wish Anne Hathaway's Fantine had just a stronger character-defining moment prior to her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. I doubt a single person could watch that scene without crying. All the actors sang live on set (unlike other musical adaptations where the soundtrack was later dubbed on top of the film), and Hathaway's heartbreaking scene was reportedly shot in one take! Many of the principle actors have played their respective roles in London or New York, or have since gone on to play the role on stage. Canadian actor Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in the original 1985 West End production and  on Broadway is seen as the Bishop, while the original Eponine, Frances Ruffelle (mother of singer Eliza Doolittle), plays a prostitute. Les Misérables is a good film, but it is on par with Chicago (2002), which made Bob Fosse's music seem a perfect fit for film. Luckily, the music (save for Master of the House, unfortunately) is the heart of the film. Listening to the soundtrack is nothing compared to the cinematic experience. I only wish that the magnitude of music was equaled by its staging. As a major fan of Les Misérables, I see more mistakes and poor choices than the average filmgoer. I definitely did not have this reaction to the film! Les Misérables is a decently made film with a devastating performance from Anne Hathaway - one I never though capable - but the much beloved musical deserved a more musical-minded director.

My rating: 3 stars out of 4 (factoring in both the quality of the story and the songs).


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  2. I have to say I was REALLY looking forward to this movie. It's difficult not to hear about the rave reviews that Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are getting for this movie so while I tried not to, I did head into the movie with a certain expectation. I'm afraid that may have coloured my perception of what I was about to see.

    Were the performances well done? Yes, the actors were acting their pants off. Did director Tom Hooper give them the space in which to do this? I would say no. Matt mentioned above that most of the film is tightshots of the actors singing and crying, and I agree that this is to the detriment of the film because while it forces you to feel their emotion, it doesn't set them within the larger context of the story: 19th century France and the period leading up to the June Revolution.

    When we see them, the French sets are incredible, vivid and lush, a distinct romanticism can be found here. There is no sense of the despair in which the people are living to cause this uprising. That-- to me-- was a mistake because it makes the characters plights, which would otherwise be full of immediacy, seem insignificant. Is it sad that these yuppies died for a revolution that never happened? Sure. Do we care? Nah, but Eddie Redmayne does (spoiler alert: Marius makes it though).

    To that note the singing was quite good and I think Tom Hooper was right about having the cast sing on set as it gives a legitimacy to the music that has in the past been troublesome for other musical films. Oddly though, by the end I felt like I'd had enough of all the singing (and this is a musical soundtrack that played non-stop for most of my chidhood). I believe I can trace this exhaustion with all the singing back to multiple hours of staring down people's throats as they sang.

    Ultimately it's a good movie but I doubt I would watch it again. Better to wait until the play heads back our way and enjoy it in person. Should Hathaway and Jackman nab Oscars? Maybe. I'm working my way through the Oscar nominated movies and performances but so far I haven't been too impressed with the other offerings either.

    We shall see...