Saturday, January 12, 2013

Les Misérables

Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper's cinematic adaptation of the musical adaptation of Les Misérables.

** out of ****

As Anne Hathaway sings, I Dreamed a Dream everything that is right about this movie is in front of you. The song is performed in a single take. The camera’s focus is shallow capturing only the raw emotion from the face of a tortured woman as she sings her heart out. This scene and many others do everything they can for a musical I am never going to like.

There’s a monotonous quality to musicals of this kind. Every conversation is sung. Every thought that goes through a character’s head becomes an excuse to indulge in his or her vocal abilities stretching out as long as possible. This takes power away from the few surrounding songs that actually sound good. For me, Les Misérables is another chapter in an ongoing struggle to understand my love/hate relationship with musicals.

I have faith that the sung-through opera-like form can work for me… But it didn’t here. I also believe you can make a great musical out of tragic subject matter without it seeming silly… But that didn’t happen here either. What I do understand about this particular movie is that Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has made artistic choices that are absolutely admirable but I found the musical content mostly tedious.

His casting utilizes great performing talents with few exceptions. His use of recording on-set vocals, works much better than when the same method was used for the abominable Beatles-themed musical Across the Universe. Danny Cohen’s 35mm cinematography richly captures the grittiness of the excellent locations, sets and faces to be featured in intimate detail through the constant use of wide-angle lenses.

If you are a fan of this musical, you need not read my opinions. I am well aware that this show has stood the test of time and that people adore it. For those who do not know it, Les Misérables is a musical based on the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, widely regarded as one of great works in the history of western literature. It features several characters with Jean Valjean (Played in this film by Hugh Jackman) in the center as an ex-convict who finds redemption. Along the way we meet many elements of the nineteenth-century French working class and their suffering culminating in the Paris uprising of 1832.

While this story has a lot of ground to cover and many characters to know, I felt very little engagement. I started to get invested in a character and then they’re taken away and I’m stuck with a totally new group of people for the next twenty minutes. It’s as though the music didn’t change enough to give me the feeling of a new atmosphere –Except for the scheming Thénardiers played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who bring maybe too much of their Sweeney Todd comic relief to the film.

Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit are relatively new to the screen and play young revolutionaries wonderfully with the beautiful Samantha Barks in her first film possessing a voice that will probably make a star out of her. Hugh Jackman can sing, yes, but near the end I was getting tired of listening to him test his range. Amanda Seyfried was good. No surprise there. I don’t need to say again how wonderful Anne Hathaway is, but her job is pretty much done early in the film.    

The only miscalculation on which I hope everyone can agree is that Russell Crowe has everything it takes to play the unwavering police inspector Javert… minus the singing voice. This is clearly star-power in favor of ability. I really wanted him to sing about fightin’ ‘round the world but one can only dream.

Musicals in this day and age are strange. There’s something so vulnerable about a person going into song outside of a music venue. So we’re all the more moved when such a daring act wins us over. I’m sure my opinions on this particular work are offending someone. I love Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge so much I’m frankly hurt when someone tells me they feel otherwise. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, All That Jazz, Sweeney Todd and Singin’ in the Rain are all musicals I consider to be amazing experiences. All I can say to explain why they work so well for me, while others don’t, is that most of their songs feel strongly linked to the emotional passage the film is taking. When the characters go into song, it feels inspired and not obligatory. Les Miz is a show where I felt many things but I rarely did I feel moved.

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