Wednesday, January 30, 2013

LES MISERABLES (2012)

Written by William Nicolson, Alain Boubill, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer


Directed by Tom Hooper


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  January 1, 2013  6:15PM



"Les Misérables", the dark and melancholy musical, based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, first appeared on a French stage in 1980 and inexplicably has gone on to become a beloved global sensation. I saw this show when a touring company swung in to town about fifteen years ago and I have to admit, I wasn't particularly impressed, unable to fathom what the fuss was all about this depressing play.

With the film version finally made and directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for his impressive job on "The King's Speech", time has given me a better understanding and appreciation of the musical but still fail to see the great appeal as it's still pretty much a big downer. Although all the right elements are in place; film stars that surprisingly do not embarrass themselves as they actually have decent singing voices (which is made even more notable as they actually sang live during filming), a dazzling production design, crisp cinematography by Danny Cohen (who was nominated for his work on "The King's Speech") along with the familiar breathtaking musical score (including a new song, "Suddenly" written by the original composers for the film) but this "Les Misérables" still feels stagy and grounded. The director fails to use what's available to him to create a soaring cinematic spectacular and has made the film feel even more claustrophobic due to the insistence of extensive tight shots of the actors.

Set in nineteenth century France, Jean Valjean is a prisoner doing hard labor for the crime of stealing bread to feed his family. He's played by a completely unrecognizable Hugh Jackman who has gone from his usual handsome, muscle-bound screen persona to being reduced to a filthy, gaunt but incredibly strong convict. Before the actor became better known as a action-hero, Mr Jackman first made his name in the musical theater, so it's no surprise that he delivers a committed, deeply heartfelt performance that is one of his best on film.Vajean has just completed serving a nineteen year sentence but is reminded by the police inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe), a man who views the world strictly in black or white, that he will always be a worthless criminal.

Shunned and unable to find work, Valjean resorts to stealing from the church who fed him. After he is caught, an act of kindness from the priest makes Valjean realize he can alter the course of his life. So he breaks his parole and goes off to begin again, taking on a new identity. Years later, Valjean has not only become a successful and wealthy factory owner but the mayor of his new town. After a man is pinned under a cart, Valjean lifts it off him and Javert, passing through town, witnesses this feat. He doesn't remember Valjean immediately but soon becomes aware of his previous life.

One of the factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is discovered to be an unwed mother and is fired by the foreman. She has been sending her earnings to a corrupt couple, the Thenardiers, (played for by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) to care for her young daughter, Cosette. Selling her teeth, hair and inevitably, her body to earn desperately needed money, Fantine soon becomes seriously ill. After she is about to be arrested by Javert, Valjean recognizes Fantine and learns of her dire circumstances. He orders that she is released and gets her to a hospital. Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he will care for her daughter but Javert comes to reveal that he knows his true identity. Valjean escapes, managing to get Cosette from the Thenardiers (for a large sum of cash) before the police inspector arrives.

Valjean and Cosette (now a beautiful young woman played by Amanda Seyfried) having quietly settled in Paris, sheltering his daughter from their past. She has caught the eye of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student but Eponine (Samantha Banks), the daughter of the Thenardiers who have also moved to the city of lights, is secretly in love with him. Fed up with the government ignoring the plight of the poor, Marius, along with his good friend, Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) organize other students to start a revolution. After they wage a deadly battle with the police, Javert poses as one of the rebels to spy on them but is caught and ordered to be killed. With their paths crossing one final time, Valjean and Javert face each other but the former prisoner now has the upper hand.

Musicals are very difficult to bring successfully to the silver screen as they teeter the fine line between trying to hang on to the spirit of the theatrical presentation while struggling to find a sense of realism that is required by today's audience. Mr.Hooper displays plenty of skill and ambition but this large production seems a little over his head. The director confidently manages to get fine work from his actors but less sure of where to place the camera. The film twirls and swirls in constant motion but once a song begins, the movement abruptly halts as we watch a character, in extreme close-up, exposing their deep, dark emotions with musical accompaniment. Perhaps Mr. Hooper felt that showing each pore on every dirty, miserable tear-stained face will help make "Les Misérables" appear more cinematic but the only time this is actually effective is during Ms Hathaway's moving performance of the musical's signature song, "I Dreamed A Dream". The actress delves deeply as she brings all of the pain and suffering Fantine has endured in her young life to the surface, seen almost entirely tight on her luminous face. This is easily the film's most captivating moment and I'm not ashamed to admit that I was actually brought to tears

The script is credited to four writers and with two being the composers of the musical, it's not quite clear what the other two contributed since there is virtually no dialogue in this film. The story still manages to feel rushed despite a running time of one hundred and fifty-eight minutes.

The idea of casting Mr. Crowe in a musical would appear to be a head-scratcher but the actor has performed in his own rock band for many years. Although he has a pleasant baritone and handles his songs fairly well but he's not really up to the vocal challenges of this music as his voice is a bit colorless. I found myself more interested in whether the actor would be able to hit his notes that being moved by what he was singing. The use of Mr. Cohen and Ms Bonham Carter to inspire some much needed levity falls flat and their singing, while nowhere near as painful as the crooning of Pierce Bronson in "Mamma Mia", is not much more than competent. As the young lovebirds, Ms Seyfried displays a very lovely voice but the real surprise is Mr Redmayne, best known as stage actor, who makes an electrifying impression on screen with strong, commanding vocals.

As a stage-to-screen adaption, the success of "Les Misérables" falls somewhere in the middle as it's neither a badly translated musical nightmare nor an unforgettable magical experience. It is simply a serviceable affair that highlights some genuinely, heart-breaking moments told through some beautiful songs of pain, passion and despair but overall, never ignites enough to to make all of these big emotions in this long, bleak journey feel more than superficial.