Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables has seen its fair share of adaptations. It's been a feature film over a dozen times, a miniseries, and of course the iconic 1980 stage musical - in addition to a radio production and a few foreign ripoffs. This year saw the musical adapted to the screen under the directorial care of Tom Hooper, who dominated the Oscars a couple of years back with The King's Speech. Opinions on this latest incarnation are likely to vary somewhat, as most already have their favorite version picked out.

The story chronicles the trials of the recently-freed convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to put a new life together for himself after nineteen years of imprisonment. After breaking his parole and assuming a new identity, Valjean finds himself hunted by the hawkish Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). And while Valjean remains the centerpiece of the story, numerous other characters of varying consequence come and go during the film's two-and-a-half-hour-plus run time; such as Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is forced into a life of prostitution and destitution after losing her job...her daughter Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as an adult and Isabelle Allen as a child)...and many others.


Les Misérables is a beautiful piece of cinema. There are occasional presentations of grand spectacle; whether the camera is swooping in past the wreckage of a ship being hauled into dock, descending upon the crowded streets of 19th-century France, or floating into the sky as Valjean tears his papers and casts them into the mountain winds. It's a delicate balance handled appropriately and with breathtaking display. But for the most part, intimate handheld camerawork guides the film. We follow each character around the various set pieces in a way that makes us feel as though we're right there with them. This also allows for a much more visceral and emotionally resonant presentation of the movie's poignant scenes and songs. During several numbers ("Valjean's Soliloquy" and "I Dreamed a Dream" are the first that come to mind) Hooper wisely captures most - if not all - of the performance in a single take. This allows for the scene and the song to gain emotional momentum, and by the time the characters themselves are struggling to sing through their tears we as an audience are struggling with our own tears. It's such a simple approach, but it works wonders for the emotional impact of this movie.

Performances are as satisfying as can be expected from a cast this iconic and renowned. Jackman is well cast as Valjean, as his singing voice is well developed and has already been proven in his previous Broadway excursions. Moreover he's physically imposing enough to convincingly articulate the raw power and strength associated with the character. Russell Crowe's Javert is stern and unflinching, and his voice is good (if not always great) enough to carry the weight of Javert's own personal demons. Anne Hathaway is pitch perfect and develops her character quickly and convincingly during her comparatively brief screen time. And her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" has finally overcome the memory of Susan Boyle's YouTube'd-to-death performance of the same. If Hathaway's delivery doesn't garner at least one or two stray tears, you might need to double check your pulse; it's ineffably beautiful. Another performer who scores major points is Eddie Redmayne, who plays the idealistic revolutionary Marius Pontmercy. I've never given much thought to Redmayne one way or another - but both his acting and especially his singing in Les Misérables are fantastic.

Which brings me to the music itself. The iconic music of this piece is already crystallized in many a fan's mind by the original London Cast recording, and with good reason. I'm certainly not about to argue with the merit of that recording. But personally, I prefer the music of this adaptation. The orchestration is a bit more diverse here, dipping into arrangements that are occasionally more delicate and understated. Hooper also broke tradition with this film in regards to the recording itself. Most film musicals pre-record the song and have the actor's lip-sync on camera, but Les Misérables had the cast record their songs live on set - so the takes you're watching are also the takes you're hearing. This adds an additional layer to the performances, as actors are free to nuance the presentation and let their voices occasionally break or falter as they struggle through the passions sung. It's a seemingly minor detail, but it gives the film an even more inescapable sincerity.

Les Misérables feels very much like a stage musical, and I found that to be a very good thing. There are shifts in the tone of the film that reflect a more organic feel towards the viewing experience. The comic relief provided by Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively) almost feels out of place at first because it contrasts so starkly the heavy-handed aesthetic employed up to that point. But as the film continues, all of the pieces coalesce in their proper place and the resulting feel is, as I said, more akin to viewing a stage production than a film.


I mentioned before that the run time is just over two and a half hours. In a musical, that can feel a great deal longer where an entire scene revolves around a single song and moment in the story. This isn't a con per se, but I recommend saving the soft drinks until later if you plan to enjoy Les Misérables to the fullest.

If you don't like musicals to begin with, Les Misérables isn't likely to be your exception. It's as sappy and tear-jerking as any musical I can think of and you could call it heavy-handed without being entirely wrong. I personally love all of these qualities, but if you don't there's little you'll find enjoyable about this film.

And while the following is not directed at the film proper, I've come to find out that (at the moment anyway) the soundtrack for this film is only available as a "Highlights From..." title and doesn't include some of the more iconic pieces such as "Who Am I," "Do You Hear the People Sing," and several others. I hope Universal Republic sees fit to release a full cast recording in the near future as I was completely taken by the orchestration and arrangement. And honestly, how can a highlights album leave out "Do You Hear the People Sing"?


It's already begun making the rounds for awards announcements, snagging Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Song, and Best Picture. That's little wonder as the movie has all the ear marks of an award-magnet: breathtaking spectacle, stellar performances, and beautiful music. I have to admit that I didn't expect to blown away on the scale that I was by the time the film had concluded, but I'm all the more glad that I was.

Les Misérables (the original musical) has often been described as a "global phenomenon" and "worldwide sensation." I think it's safe to say the film comes about as close as it possibly could to capturing what has given birth to that kind of verbiage. If you're a diehard fan of the musical, this film isn't going to supplant your existing fondness - but I'm certain that it will supplement it. Everything about this film's composition is so lovely to behold, so achingly beautiful and heartfelt, it's impossible to deny its accomplishment. As a film, as a musical, as a piece of art - Les Misérables is an absolute triumph.

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