Wednesday, January 23, 2013

movie review LES MISERABLES

Les Misérables is one of those stage to screen musical adaptations that gets most things right in the transfer from live musical to celluloid experience.  As one of the most successful stage musicals, Les Misérables is a worldwide phenomenon so it seemed only natural that a film version would eventually happen.  However, the fact that it took almost thirty years since it first premiered to become a film is something that I don't think anyone expected.

Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, and set in the early to mid 1800's, Les Misérables tells the epic story of Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.  His original five year sentence becomes almost twenty after he tries to escape making him a very bitter and desperate man.  However, when a bishop saves him, that act of kindness that gives him a second chance and how that event turns him into a positive force is the original tale of "paying it forward."  His redemption and how that changes him is the force behind the emotional journey of the story while the fact that he did run away to become someone else and is being hunted by a police inspector is the major driving element behind the plot.

Hugh Jackman as "Jean Valjean"
As Valjean, Hugh Jackman is giving a stellar performance, one that not only just earned him a Golden Globe but also an Oscar nomination.  Much has been written about how director Tom Hooper had the actors sing live during filming instead of lip syncing to a pre-recorded audio track.  This tactic allowed the actors to not only provide more emotions to a song based on being in the moment on set verses being in a studio weeks or even months before shooting actually began and they had a chance to become and discover their characters but also allowed them to try various takes on the songs during the filming process.  Jackman benefits greatly from this choice.  His two dramatic solos in the film, "Valjean's Soliloquy" and "Who Am I?" are so full of emotion seemingly derived from that exact moment the film was shot that I don't think he would have won that Golden Globe if the songs had been pre-recorded.

Anne Hathaway as "Fantine"
Likewise, Anne Hathaway also benefits from this filming choice.  Her "I Dreamed a Dream," arguably the best known song from the show, is delivered in one seamless take that perfectly captures the anguish of her character Fantine and the journey her character has been forced to take.  It is an extremely memorable and heart wrenching moment and I have to believe that Hathaway is the front runner for the Oscar for Supporting Actress after already winning a Golden Globe as well as numerous other awards for her performance. 

Russell Crowe is Javert, the inspector who makes it his lifelong mission to hunt Valjean down and while Hooper mentioned he cast actors who could sing instead of singers who could act, Crowe is able to hold his own against his more vocally gifted co-stars.  Sure Crowe's voice is a little on the softer and gruffer side, but I liked the way his singing was more internal and seemingly coming from an unbalanced man, which was clearly in line with the character of Javert.  While he can't hold some of the notes as long as some of the stage Valjean's have, I thought his performance was as calculated as his character is and I like it more and more that I think back on it.

Russell Crowe as "Javert"
Several of the supporting cast fair pretty good, particularly Eddie Redmayne as Marius who has a certain beauty in both his acting and singing that connect very clearly with the material.  Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras are two actors who have performed in numerous musicals in London and Broadway respectively, so their voices are the best in the film, but they both are also perfect in their parts with Barks especially touching as the girl in love with someone who doesn't love her back and who knows it.

Amanda Seyfried as "Cosette" and
Eddie Redmayne as "Marius"
Amanda Seyfried is Cosette, Fantine's daughter who Valjean adopts and who Marius loves.  And she is fine in the part, which of all of the roles has probably the least amount of good material to latch onto.  As the comic duo the Thénardiers, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play Eponine's parents and Cosette's original caretakers who factor into many of the plot points.  While both are clearly up to the challenge of the material, and I especially liked Bonham Carter's contributions, fortunately Hooper and the other contributors have wisely cut back on some of their material that was in the stage version in order to not have the comical moments over shadow the more serious ones of the film.

Samantha Barks as "Eponine"
Colm Wilkinson who created the role of Valjean both in London and on Broadway plays the part of the Bishop whose actions are the catalyst for Valjean's journey.  It is a great touch to have Wilkinson in the film and playing this part and he expertly delivers what is needed.

William Nicholson has taken the original sung through musical and made changes to the script both alone and in consultation with the original French creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, English librettist Herbet Kretzmer as well as producer Cameron Mackintosh to fill in some of the more vague moments of the musical.  By adding in some things from the original novel, as well as moving some of the songs around, the overall effect is a tighter show with a clearer dramatic arch.   The movement of two of the big songs, Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" and Eponine's "On My Own" to be in more dramatic moments of their character's journeys are two simple changes that made me think "Of course it makes more sense to have those songs at those points in the show."  I'm curious to see if those same changes, or at least the movement of "I Dreamed a Dream," are made for future productions of the stage version.

Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
and Isabelle Allen
The look and feel of the film is similar to what Hopper did with the tv mini series John Adams that he also directed, it has a gritty, bleak look, seemingly in tone with the time period the film is set in.  Hopper also chooses to shoot most of the solo songs in close-up with minimal cuts.  This gives a more direct, internal feel to those monologues which works very well in my opinion.  Are there some quibbles I have with the film?  Of course.  Some scenes that are shot in harsh daylight could have benefited from more moody evening lighting.  Seyfried's singing is a little thin especially around the higher notes.  The main plot point of the second half of the film, around the student's revolt and the building of the barricade is still a little unclear and I miss a few things from the stage show like the use of the ghosts during "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."  But this film of Les Misérables is one that I will gladly revisit again and again.  Is this the greatest movie musical ever, no, but is this a story of such emotion and depth, most definitely.

While the film is still in theaters, the blu ray/DVD has just been announced with a March 19th release date.  Amazon link for the blu ray/DVD is below.

Trailer for the film:

In depth behind the scenes feature:

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