Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Miserables (***)

Directed by Tom Hooper


For various reasons, musicals don't sell in Hollywood like they used to. As movies began to gravitate more towards sensibility and realism in the late 1960's, the spectacle of the Hollywood musical fell out of favor. There's something very stage-y about the old films like The Band Wagon and Meet Me In St. Louis, and I don't think it's much of a coincidence that musicals still run on the stage for decades to acclaim and popularity. Truth is, there's enough spectacle on the screen already, and singing doesn't add a whole lot. I'd love to see someone make another Singin' In The Rain type movie, but instead of singing about the death of the silent film, they'd be singing about the death of their beloved musicals. But I guess I shouldn't really be giving away free, uncopyrighted pitches here.

I say all this because it takes a few minutes to really ease into Les Miserables, Tom Hooper's much anticipated adaptation of the much adored stage musical. Even though I feel like I shouldn't. But then again, Les Miserables doesn't start and stop the way most musicals do, allowing non-singing scenes to fill in between songs to allow audiences to catch their breath. Les Miserables is wall-to-wall music, with few moments of steady statements that come almost as a surprise. This adaptation is completely unapologetic about it's musical-ness (so to speak), and in doing so commits fully to the theatrics - the spectacle - of what Les Miserables can be. In many ways, it's a throwback by this regard, even if Hooper's ever-drifting, ever-dutch-angling camera seems to make it seem like it's anything but.

The famous story - based originally on the novel by Victor Hugo - takes place five years before the French Revolution, and follows French prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), recently paroled from a nineteen-year sentence for stealing bread. His sentence is overseen by the ruthless Javert (Russell Crowe), who despises all of the prisoners and is not above forcing them into slave-like labor. Tough is the life of a paroled prisoner marked "very dangerous" the way Valjean has, and it's not until he is given assistance from a particularly helpful church bishop that he is given the proper motivation to escape from under Javert's thumb and live a life on his own. He runs out on his parole and five years later, creates a new life for himself with a new name. He goes on to own a factory and is even voted the mayor of his small town.

But Javert is always close behind spending an almost maniacal amount of time try to find the frequently-escaping Valjean, and even when Valjean seems safe beneath his new identity, the very sight of Javert is still enough to frighten him. When Javert shows up at his factory, it is enough to totally distract him from his duties, and he totally misses the improper and unfair dismissal of one of his best workers, the beautiful Fantine (Anne Hathaway). She's been saving money to send to her young daughter Cosette, who's been living under the care of others. Without a job, she's forced to become a prostitute on the cold streets of France. She even goes as far as to sell off her beautiful long hair for money. Valjean reunites with Fantine just in time to see her at her lowest, but by then Javert has already cracked the code and knows his true identity, and Valjean is forced into hiding again.

Several circumstances lead to Valjean finding Cosette and taking care of her as his own. She grows to be a young woman (played by Amanda Seyfried), but by this time the French Revolution is in full force. A privileged young man, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), sheds all signs of his wealthy, aristocratic background and joins the rebellion. That is, until he meets Cosette for a glance, and falls instantly in love. Soon, Marius finds himself choosing between the cause and his love for Cosette, while Valjean finds the Revolution bringing Javert closer and closer to his doorstep. What proceeds is an epic tale of love, freedom, and lots and lots of singing. If the plot seems complicated, its because it is, but Hooper twirls about and around the music, letting the tunes guide the way.

Much has been made of Tom Hooper's (surprisingly controversial) way of visualizing this story. Much has already been made of how the actors recorded their singing live on the set (as opposed to singing to a track recorded months before). The performances are incredibly intimate and immediate. Quite often, the singing is overcome by the emotions of the performance, which greatly benefits the actors and their work - but I can only imagine the headache it was for the sound editor; kudos to him. Most of the music is already pretty popular, and equipping the film with such renowned voices as Jackson and Hathaway helps. Though I guess it should be said that Crowe, while more or less holding his own, pales in comparison.

Much of the movie is shot in striking close-ups, putting the singing on full display. Often - as is the case in the film's best scene, Fantine's performance of "I Dream a Dream" - we see the actors in a single close-up for the entirety, and we're left their alone with their performance, as if we're getting our own private show. This structure has its strengths and its weaknesses. Too often the visual flow is stagnant, and not very cinematic. I don't disapprove of Hooper's strategy, except that this film is two-and-a-half hours plus. Without a great variety of visual movement through this movie, the film drags by the time it gets to its second half. Truth be told, I found Fantine's tale way early in the movie much more interesting than the French Revolution, and I would've liked to see more of the former and less of the latter.

But I do imagine that this adaptation will leave many fans of Les Miserables very, very happy. It is almost stubbornly committed to the show's songbook, and I guess considering that, its a testament to Hooper's filmmaking that this didn't end up being four hours. This is a pretty great story (as most of Victor Hugo's are), and the songs that were eventually created for the musical are fantastic as well. Hooper captures the spirit of both of those in this movie, even if I did find moments to drag. But there are the performances from Jackman, Crowe and especially Hathaway that really make this movie work for me. Even Crowe, recognizing that he's the lesser singer, had moments of brooding melancholy that brought some nuance to the menacing Javert. I find the bi-partisan response to this film to be a bit silly, considering that it is just a movie spectacle with great music. But it is a good movie. So, lets just focus on that.

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