Monday, December 31, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Les Miserables (2012)

This New Year's Eve I went to see LES MISERABLES with great anticipation, and I found it a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience. It was a great pleasure spending this afternoon once again immersed in the moving story and beautiful music of this special musical.

I came to the film having seen the musical on stage twice; the first time was at the now-gone Shubert Theatre in Century City, circa 1988-89, and the second time was a production at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in 1991. That particular version, which starred country singer Gary Morris as Valjean, ranks among the top three stage productions I've ever seen of any show; it was a transcendent experience of such beauty that I cried pretty much from start to finish. (The L.A. Times, in its rave review, noted Morris's "towering presence.") The memory of that experience is such that to date I've been unwilling to see the show on stage again, as nothing could match it, but recently I've started to feel the yen to see LES MIS once more, so the movie came along at just the right time.

The film version was completely absorbing, strongly holding my attention for all of its 157 minutes. I liked the film very much, though I didn't find it a complete success; for sections of the film I felt more as though I were an interested observer than totally emotionally committed. That said, when the movie was good, it was very, very good, and there were moments, particularly Valjean's death scene, when it reached the heights.

I'll tackle my issues with this version before moving on to what I liked. First, as others have noted, director Tom Hooper is too much in love with closeups. One of my daughters commented that it was as though he was afraid to lose capturing the performances and the much-ballyhooed live singing by pulling back the camera.

There was an overabundance of shots of tear-stained faces, and while there were moments when that style of filming was beautifully appropriate -- particularly that final scene between Valjean, Cosette, and Marius -- there were times I would have really appreciated a wider shot and more visual context. For instance, "A Heart Full of Love" would have been very satisfying if the three actors were seen in a wider master shot some of the time, instead of cutting back and forth among closeups. After all, LES MISERABLES has had no trouble being exceptionally moving on the stage, when many in the audience are at a great distance from the actors.

The lack of distance was interesting in another way, in that things such as Fantine's travails and the Thenardiers' grossness are treated in a more "impressionistic" way on stage. It was more difficult to watch these moments treated more realistically on screen -- all the more so as the viewer's face is up so close to the sausage-making, literally and figuratively. The less seen on screen of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the cartoonish Thenardiers, the better.

Finally, when the camera does pull back, the film's look was such that I was too aware that I was watching a "CGI" world. I couldn't help speculating in some scenes, such as Javert overlooking the city, as to how much was real and how much was green screened. I suppose that was the only way to simultaneously film outdoors and go back in time to such an extent, but I found it a distraction.

Really, though, these are fairly minor quibbles in a brave, bold filming of a classic musical, in an era when screen musicals are all too rare.

Although I thought that the live singing was more of a marketing angle than anything else -- does anyone really care that Julie Andrews couldn't sing "The hills are alive" live because the helicopter would have drowned her out?! -- this technique did have its impressive aspects. Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," shot in a continuous long take, is a remarkable achievement for an actress not known as a singer, and I will be quite surprised if it doesn't net her an Oscar.

While I had an issue with so many closeups, in "I Dreamed a Dream" the close angle was very appropriate, and the flip side of the closeups is that I admire director Hooper's willingness to stay with the actors for extended periods and not use overediting as a crutch. A decade ago CHICAGO (2002) was interesting but arrived on screen as more of an extremely long music video than a true musical, with the dizzying hyperediting preventing the viewer from truly enjoying and/or assessing things such as Catherine Zeta-Jones' dancing ability. Hooper allows the viewer to stay with the actors and really "see" their performances and singing, and for this he should be commended.

Hugh Jackman was a perfect Jean Valjean, excellent in terms of both performance and singing. As a side note, the brief song added, with Valjean musing on the wonder of having suddenly become a parent, worked well. The casting of Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean of both the West End and Broadway stage productions, in the small but key role as the bishop added an extra layer of emotion to the scene spurring Valjean's transformation.

I was deeply impressed by Eddie Redmayne (MY WEEK WITH MARILYN) as Marius; he was a fine singer and completely believable, a really outstanding performance in every way. Samantha Barks, as Eponine, appeared very much at home on screen, despite this being her first film role, and I liked that she sang Eponine's songs with some restraint, as they are often simply belted out. Isabelle Allen made an excellent young Cosette.

I also very much liked Amanda Seyfried, who was visually perfect as the older Cosette; I felt as though a couple sections of her songs needed to have the range lowered, but overall I was pleased with the casting.

The biggest surprise for me was Russell Crowe as Javert. There had been whispers in social media that he might not be up to par as a singer, especially given that early trailers didn't include his singing, and at least one reviewer mused as to whether Crowe's "rock star baritone" was right for the part. Crowe's singing was just fine and in fact his rendition of "Stars" was one of the highlights of the film for me, movingly performed both vocally and emotionally. Other actors might be more polished singers, but this is simply one version, one interpretation among many Javerts over the years, and I completely bought in to Crowe in the role.

My favorite scenes included the confrontation between Valjean and Javert at Fantine's deathbed, which was excellent even though the staging necessitated that the song be somewhat cut off, and Valjean's death scene, as Cosette learns the full truth from Marius. I initially was trying to hold back the tears there, then thought "Oh, just go with it!" and let the tears flow. Between LES MIS and DARK VICTORY (1939) there were quite a few tears shed watching movies over the last couple days!

As an aside, I watched the trailers several times apiece in recent months and noticed that some bits in the trailers weren't in the final film version, including a scene where Marius asks Eponine about Cosette when he first sees her. I was also curious about the absence of some lyrics, particularly Valjean's deathbed scene, where the words "It's the story of those who always loved you, your mother gave her life for you..." are missing.

Parental advisory: This film is rated PG-13 for suggestive sexual material, mostly relating to Fantine, who turns to prostitution to obtain money to save her daughter Cosette. Beyond that, it's a classic story and musical with beautiful themes about mercy, forgiveness, and redemption which are of value for all viewers.

It would be very interesting if -- just as there have been many stage productions around the world -- one day another cast and crew tackles this musical to see what other ideas might work in bringing it to the screen. In the meantime, this version of LES MISERABLES is an excellent movie in fairly lean times for quality films, and an even more rare modern movie musical, and I have no hesitation in strongly recommending it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a movie that would be nearly as effective on the small screen and really demands the big screen and booming sound. If you don't like musicals then stay away, but otherwise it's definitely worth checking out. Good review Laura.

3:02 PM  

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