Monday, December 31, 2012

Review - Les Miserables

27 years after taking the world by storm, the international musical hit Les Miserables finally gets the Hollywood treatment its diehard fans have been waiting for, but not everyone will sing its praises as loudly as them. We've already heard the critics singing the song of angry men, while audience reactions seem to be as contentious as the student rebellion around which the melodrama unfolds. Detractors have trained their muskets squarely at the film's in-your-face emotive style, the very appeal of which defenders have made their barricade against such criticisms. It begs the question: Is Les Mis the sort of movie that makes necessary – or for that matter, even makes possible – an objective review? I know I struggle to extract my opinion of the film from my opinion of the source material. Where does my love of the show end and my love of the movie begin?
Despite a butt-punishing 2-hour and 38-minute run time, Les Mis is a fairly streamlined distillation of Victor Hugo's 19th century novel, in which ex-con Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) spends the better part of his life on the run from the law and in search of redemption. Across the years he eludes capture by the overly dedicated Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), raises the daughter of the ill-fated Fantine (Anne Hathaway), fights in the Paris rebellion of 1832, and basically puts up with all kinds of crap (literally, in one instance!) to ensure the future happiness and security of his adopted daughter (Amanda Seyfried). Hugo spins an elaborate web of connections between these and many other characters – including the dashing Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the scheming Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and their lovelorn daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) – through a series of outlandish coincidences that would vex Dickens.

If the above synopsis sounds at all glib, it's only because I have nothing but a heart full of love for this musical... and because a piece as densely plotted as Les Mis defies pithy summation. Indeed, the epic scale of the narrative and the ravishing score by which it's conveyed have long been part of its identity. Les Mis has always worn its heart proudly on its sleeve, and this cinematic translation respectfully retains that heightened sense of drama while bringing us in for a closer look.

Tom Hooper, who cut his teeth on several TV films and miniseries before impressing movie goers with The King's Speech, clearly has his directorial eye cast on performance over artifice. He often shoots his actors in extreme closeup, which may not do many favours for the expensive sets and costumes, but certainly magnifies the context of each lyric and every dramatic beat. Also adding to the immediacy of the sung-through dialogue is the inspired decision to record every number on the set, rather than in a studio beforehand. The tremendous cast is liberated to incorporate levels of expressiveness in their facial ticks and vocal inflections that would go undetected on a Broadway stage.
And what performances they are, too. In Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman finally has a meaty, heartfelt leading role that makes use of his considerable theatrical talents. Anne Hathaway leaves an impression that lasts far longer than her character does. Her hair-raising, single-take interpretation of the show's signature ballad “I Dreamed A Dream” is an impossible act to follow, and it's not like nobody else gets a tear-soaked soliloquy to warble either. Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are similarly moving in their sympathetic solos “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and “On My Own”, respectively, while Amanda Seyfried's feathery soprano may be the most technically impressive voice on the soundtrack. It's enough to make Russell Crowe sound a bit out of place with his rock operatic tenor, but even his slightly robotic singing is in tune with his character, who's always been a bit one-note in the script, if not musically. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide welcome comic relief, although their Burton-esque costuming and makeup does prove distracting.

Perhaps I can't see the barricade for the furniture here, but if I'm being honest with myself, Les Miserables is as good an adaptation of my favourite musical as I could hope for. If I could put myself into the shoes of the uninitiated, or the cynical, or the musical-averse, I'm sure the film's numerous imperfections would diminish its effect. Perhaps unbearably so. But that is a hypothetical that I am happily unable to simulate. Though grotesquely misunderstood by many a critic, it is, for me, a stirring celebration of the musical genre as a whole; confidently sure of its true nature and trustworthy of its audience, or at least, of those willing to embrace it in all its bold, rapturous glory. Do you hear the people sing?

***1/2 out of ****

2 comments:

  1. I do indeed. Also liked this movie and I am puzzled over the critics' concensus (however you spell it).

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  2. I do love musicals and I enjoyed the stage production but I'm afraid couldn't enjoy this movie beyond the occasionally effective set piece. (Mainly: Do You Hear The People Sing) The editing had no rhythm at all which is pretty necessary in a musical film. And the blunt songs may work well on stage where so much is left to the audiences imagination, but in a movie it just creates a fairy tale of a story with no consequence or meaning.

    Just my take, though.

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