Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Miserable Ones

Every year there are a handful of films that I get obsessively excited about, and usually one of those occurs during the Holiday Movie Season of November and December.  Last year it was The Muppets, the year before it was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and the year before that it was Avatar.  You can usually count on me being gaga for one film or another and this Holiday Season was no different.  There were a great many films that came out in Novemeber and December that I wanted to see this year and was excited about (and several that I have not seen and either can still catch or have to see on disc) but only one worked me into an obsessive frenzy matching the excitement I felt for The Muppets.  It was sure to be epic, emotional, and full of beautiful music.  It is based on one of the most popular and well known musicals of the last 30 years, which itself was based on what is considered Victor Hugo's masterpiece...the novel "Les Miserables" (which has been adapted in upwards of 30 times as a film already).  As the film's star, Hugh Jackman, stated, film musicals can either be amazing or can "stink to high heaven" and this one was sure to divide audiences across the board.  However, any way you sliced it, the film was going to be a financial success due to it's enormous built-in fan base.  The real question then, is it any good.  Let's dig deep into the grime of 19th century France and uncover, Les Miserables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a petty thief who stole a loaf of bread and then tried to elude punishment, so he has been a prisoner and slave to the French government for the past 19 years.  Finally he is released on parole by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) with a yellow ticket of leave which identifies him as a dangerous criminal to anyone who demands to see his papers.  Valjean believes himself to be free and able to start a new life, but everywhere he goes he is treated with fear and hatred due to his parole ticket.  Finally, when he is cold, shivering, and at the end of his rope, he is saved when a kindly Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) offers him shelter.  The Bishop feeds him, warms him, and gives him a comfortable bed to sleep in.  Valjean, now cynical from his treatment by others, then steals the expensive silver he ate from from the Bishop and quickly takes flight.  The next morning he is captured and the officers tell the Bishop that Valjean said he gave him the silver.  Knowing he is caught in a lie, Valjean awaits the Bishops condemnation.  Instead, the Bishop saves Valjean's life by corroborating Valjean's lie and then offering him the silver candlesticks from the table to match.  Valjean, touched and shaken to the core by this, decides to start a new life and to endevor to show the same love to others that the Bishop showed him.  He breaks parole and takes on the identity of M. Madeline.  Eight years later, Valjean is Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer and a factory owner.  At that very factory, a woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is exposed as having a child out of wedlock and the Foreman, having been denied sexual advances from her, fires her to shame her.  Valjean does nothing to intercede because at that moment he spots Javert, who has been assigned to the town as the newest inspector.  Javert is sure he recognizes Valjean, but he is unsure from where.  Meanwhile, Fantine spirals into prostitution and disease in order to pay M. Thenardier, a con man who is taking care of her child.  She has a run in with a gentleman and Javert threatens to put her in prison.  Valjean steps in and stops the punishment and takes her to a hospital where she dies.  On her deathbed she makes Valjean promise to take care of her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).  Javert confronts Valjean about his true identity and Valjean is forced to go on the run again.  He rescues Cosette from the evil Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and she lives in his care for nine years in Paris.  Suddenly it is June of 1832 and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfield) locks eyes with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and soon they are in love.  This conflicts with both of their lives as Valjean is very protective of Cosette and Marius is involved in the Rebellion scheduled to occur and led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).  Marius also has a friend in the Thernardier's daughter, Eponine (Samantha Barks) who secretly loves him.  As the characters all barrel towards their fates at the hands of the June Rebellion, what will happen and how will Valjean keep his daughter and her love safe?

Les Miserables was a behemoth as a novel and the fact that the stage musical managed to adapt it fairly faithfully into a three hour performance was fairly amazing and required some careful cutting and clipping to shoehorn all the parts and characters together.  The film manages to faithfully adapt the play (which is a pop-opera with a completely sung-through libretto) and still add back in material that was cut from the novel to make it work as a play.  The result is an adaptation that is more like the book with music and less like the play that many have come to know and love due to several songs being shortened and the order of the tunes rearranged to better film the narrative of the film.  That will tick off the most pure of the purists, but considering that the book was fairly faithfully adapted in the first place, the film will still grab the not-so-stick-in-the-mud-ish ones. 

 Where the film is most likely to lose devotees is in its direction, which has been deftly handled by Tom Hooper.  Hooper, well known for his controversial Oscar win for The King’s Speech over The Social Network, has attracted a lot of hate in recent years from people who either were ticked over his win or who simply don’t care for his style of off-kilter dutch angles, fish eye lenses, and reliance of close-ups to capture the actor’s emotions.  He uses these along with sweeping camera moves to capture Les Miserables, in a 1.85:1 ratio no less (rather than the traditional 2.35:1 wide used for big musicals).  This film is not shot at all like a traditional musical…in that I mean that there are very few wide shots that capture scenery, costumes, choreography, and other hugely theatrical techniques that often set a musical apart from other films.  It is shot more like a narrative film where people don’t sing.  This is likely to tick off people who expected a more traditional film musical.  I however do not think that any of these tricks are too the film’s detriment.  I felt an abnormal amount of attachment to the proceedings, even more so than when I saw the stage production, because I had actors in close-up singing their hearts out to me and I could not escape into an edit or point-of-view shift.  I was forced to watch the pain and degradation and to feel it along with them.  It achieved the maximum emotional reaction from me.

 Next is the unconventional design which highlights the grime and filth of the period.  Samantha Barks as Eponine, who is a lovely person, is shellacked with grime throughout the picture.  Anna Hathaway, also lovely normally, appears with bad teeth and is completely emaciated.   Even the sexy Hugh Jackman, whom it would be hard to make look bad, gets absolutely covered in feces and muck in a scene which takes him through the sewers of Paris.  As one negative reviewer already wrote, this is an ugly movie.  However, he wrote that intended as an insult.  I think it is more of a compliment to Hooper and the production team’s intent to capture as realistically as possible the filthy and miserable world that Hugo described in his novel.  I noticed this many times and every time I saw something not look pretty or eye-catching I was pleased.  I didn’t want this to look like The Phantom of the Opera or Chicago with their bright colors and sparkles.  I wanted it to look like filth.

Finally, the performances are going to split the field hugely given that Hooper decided to cast great actors who could sing rather than great singers who could act.  This is a huge decision for material like this because the musical’s score is so important to so many people and they want to hear it presented in the most perfect and definitive way possible.  For those people, I would suggest either the 10th anniversary concert or the 25th anniversary concert, both of which are on DVD and Blu-ray.  This is NOT meant to be a recital where all the songs are sung perfectly and to the rafters.  This is meant to be a story told through music, which is why Hooper’s decision is not only correct but essential for the film he chose to make.  The film’s stage actors, Wilkinson, Barks, and Tveit all sing marvelously but also act through their songs in keeping with the tone and vision of the film.  Redmayne also has an impeccable voice and has been given many accolades (deservedly so) for his vocals, particularly in his performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

The Hollywood actors who can sing include Jackman (who did indeed win a Tony on the stage but I include him here anyway), Crowe, Hathaway, Cohen, and Carter are more of a mixed bag.  Crowe is the weakest link in the cast, which has been noted in other reviews for this film.  However, the reason he is the weakest link comes down to the fact that he simply doesn’t sing as strongly as everyone else.  His voice is actually lovely and I found myself loving his rendition of “Stars” for its understated qualities (because Javert is restrained and repressed and therefore should not be as big vocally as Valjean).  Jackman is next in taking some flack because he is a known singer and he makes the biggest target since it is his character who carries the movie.  For every amazing moment he has a few pitchy ones and it would be easy to write him off as a flaw if you were just focusing on the sound his vocals make.  What you’d miss is the incredible acting that drives the vocals and cements him, for me, as the definitive film Valjean (that’s saying something when Liam Neeson has played him before).  During his Soliloquy there is a moment where he is sobbing and singing and it sounds like the song is ripping its way out of him rather than being sung and it is like a dagger in the gut emotionally.  Overall, through incredible acting and very good singing, Jackman commands this role and is a revelation.  It is probably his best work to date.

 Anne Hathaway has gotten nothing but raves for her portrayal as Fantine and for good reason.  She works so many nuances and subtle facial ticks into “I Dreamed a Dream”…which for many seemed a one-note song before…that she manages to achieve the film’s first full-on tissue moment in that scene (it should be noted that the majority of the song is captured by Hooper in an extreme close-up of her face that never cuts away and it is devastating).   Seyfield, on the other hand has divided many with her thinner voice.  Her light touch and reedy tone really help make Cosette seem very innocent and inexperienced however…and her acting touches, like Hathaway’s, add subtle nuances to a character that always felt like a two-dimensional character rather than a fleshed out person we could relate to.  Overall, the singing – which was recorded live on set to capture every aspect of the actors’ performances – is more triumph than failure and fits completely in Hooper’s vision of making a realistic world that you would connect to emotionally.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I loved this film and have not gotten it out of my head since I saw it, but that does not mean there aren’t a few flaws.  At over two hours and thirty minutes, you’d probably be surprised if I told you I wished it was a little longer to give some pause from one number to the next.  There were several moments where a fade or a pause would have helped cushion us from jumping to the next thing.  Instead, Hooper makes constant use of jump cuts and keeps the film moving at a frenetic pace.  This isn’t necessarily bad because boy does this film move!  I was shocked when it ended and I thought I had been duped on the running time because it seemed to have flown by, however I think an extra two minutes of fades and pauses might remove this flaw.  While we’re talking about editing, this film is a bit messy toward the beginning with its cutting.  I was familiar with the story and the shooting script (I told you I was obsessed) but there were some very fast cuts in the opening prologue and during the Fantine section where I felt the audience might be missing what was happening (because I was blinking and missing things I knew were there).  As the film progressed, either the editing smoothed out or I got used to it (probably the former), but some cleaner cutting in the beginning would have helped make the story clearer.  Some of the singing, while the majority is great, does suffer a bit at the hands of the live-recording.  There are pitchy moments and places where I was very sure that the notes hit were not the ones expected…however this was largely in the recitatives (or the sung dialogue in between big songs) and happened rarely.  A re-recording of those scenes to dub the actors might have been nice to keep it all sounding pretty, but that also would have taken away from the magnificence of the emotion they managed to capture live on the set.  I don’t think there’s an easy fix for this.  Aside from these, I did not notice any other real flaws (yes, some critics are calling Hooper’s directoral style a huge flaw, but I feel it works).

So to reiterate, if you are coming to this film expecting to see the stage version you love sung perfectly and in its entirety in a Hollywood-film-musical style…you are in the wrong theater and should seek out either one of the recorded concerts or the nearest live performance of the musical instead.  Your preconceptions will make you hate it (or at the very least feel underwhelmed by it)  If you want to see an innovative, inspiring, slightly flawed but moving motion picture adaptation of both a book and stage show…you owe it to yourself to buy a ticket to this outstanding work of art.  I cannot in words tell you how this made me feel in an effective way (the most articulate way I’ve found was to say I felt “emotionally bludgeoned”) but trust me when I say, through all the tears and the emotional exhaustion I felt at the conclusion, I loved the experience and I cannot wait to see it again. 

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