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Monday, December 24, 2012

‘Les Miserables’ Is Bombastic, But Sure To Please Audiences


Les Miserables:  3 ½ out of 5

Fantine: I dreamed a dream in times gone by, when hope was high and life worth living.

Right off the bat, I should say that between the novel by Victor Hugo, the stage play, and previous film adaptations, I am quite familiar with the story of Les Miserables.  The idea of a big-budget film musical, with an A-list set of actors, and an Oscar-winning director certainly sounds like a success story in the making, and I think in a lot of ways this film works and is sure to get a lot of support from audiences.  At least two performances are absolutely wonderful, the music is of course great, and from a production standpoint, there is a lot of ambition to be seen.  Still, it is very clear that director Tom Hooper very much wanted to direct the hell out of this film and goes pretty overboard with his visual touch on this film.  As a result, the film is hindered by its overall presentation, especially as it attempts to rush through so many events during much of its runtime.  It will end up being dependent on the viewer as to whether or not this version of Les Mis does right by them, as it still does have stirring musical numbers.


The story revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, who has broken his parole and must flee from police Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). The pursuit consumes both men's lives, as Valjean is constantly on the run, with Javert never wavering in his search.  During this time Valjean is able to become a successful factory owner, where his story intersects with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a struggling factory worker.  Later on, Valjean becomes the guardian of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried, as she gets older) and has vowed to protect her at all cost.  After decades on the run, Valjean finds himself and Cosette in the midst of the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris, which is made more complicated by the continued presence of Javert, as well as the love that is shared between Cosette and a young revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne).  For all the fighting, dreaming, hoping, and loving that occurs in this story, it comes down to whether or not we appreciate being able to hear the people sing.

Did I mention this movie is a musical?  If not, you will be aware of that within seconds after the film begins, because once the singing starts, it does not stop.  This is certainly not a knock against the film, as that is what it is being told as and the fact that the songs and music are good-to-great is a very fortunate thing.  The added quality of having a naturalistic approach to how the songs were preformed was certainly an interesting aspect as well.  Director Tom Hooper’s decision regarding the musical numbers in this film was to have the actors actually perform the songs live, adjusting as they sang, allowing for moments of emotion to be reflected in their voices.  For a number of the actors, this is easily something that brings a lot out in their performances, because instead of simply hearing pre-recorded songs acted out by the performers who are lip-syncing, you literally get to see actors pouring their hearts out, while singing live.  It is why Anne Hathaway’s unbroken take of her singing, “I Dreamed A Dream,” will most likely win her the Oscar.


Now as much as the naturalistic approach to the music in this film seems like a benefit, that approach to the direction of this film, in general, feels like an experiment gone wrong, which is unfortunate.  Les Miserables is a film with a huge scope that seems to have been made incredibly small, given Hooper’s decision to film everything in either a medium or close-up shot.  It is very rare that he seems to want to acknowledge how grand this film is supposed to be, save for the opening and closing of the film.  Moreover, Hooper has also decided to fling the camera all over the place, during much of this film, giving it the sort of aesthetic that feels like something out of the zanier days of filmmakers like Sam Raimi or Barry Sonnenfeld, rather than a dramatic, frequently depressing, period musical.  The rather overt direction leads to other issues as well.

Because of the gritty intensity that Hooper is going for, he is capturing the actors at a level that is basically too close for comfort.  By that I mean that seeing the actors up close at a constant level, while always singing, takes away the impact that some of the music should have, because we can basically glean a lot of the emotions off of their faces, making some of the songs feel unnecessary in some instances.  I had to confer with a colleague of mind, but it appears most evident with someone like Russell Crowe.  Crowe is an excellent actor, despite being the poorest singer in this ensemble, and because of this, his performance has too much nuance to be clearly seen, which makes Javert come off as an irritating factor, with redundant songs, in a film that needs, frankly, more of a two-dimensional persona to play this part.


I swear I am getting to the good in this film, which, despite the subject matter, does have plenty of potential to be a rousing spectacle for audiences, but there is still another issue to address.  The film feels like it is in a rush.  About an hour in, after we are given all the time in the world to appreciate a very specific performance, the film heads into its more revolution-heavy plot line, but never seems to revive how emotionally charged its extended first act was.  Plot points fly by, as we are given many things to take in and new characters to be acquainted with.  It is as if the film seems to lose focus, as it is more dedicated to making sure we have a good enough idea of the laundry list of issues and relationships to keep track of, rather than be more focused on investing us with who really matters.  This makes the most difference once I realized how inconsequential the film seems to have made Valjean at this point, while the supposed emotional anchors of the film are barely developed at all, most notably Cosette.  While Les Miserables is certainly a long film, it is still far too speedy in addressing its own story in a more effective way.

Putting the direction of the film aside, there are some damn fine performances to watch this film for.  Hugh Jackman is very much in a role that seems to have been calling on him for a while.  Knowing that Jackman is a true theater geek at heart, it comes as no surprise that he is just wonderful in the role of Jean Valjean.  His musical talents serve him greatly here, as does his physicality.  Hathaway is equally great in a role that is truly heart-breaking, which is evident not only due to how she already brings down the house with her performance that I have already mentioned, but because of how apparent it is that she is emoting with all she has throughout her screen time in this film.  These are the two performances that serve the film greatly and it is a shame that Hathaway’s work, in particular, causes the film to peak early.


Other notable characters are the Thenardiers, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who serve as both the villains of the film and its only form of comic relief.  For those who know the stage version of Les Miserables, it can be argued that Bonham Carter and Cohen have actually toned down these characters, which is fitting, given that the film is so burdened by its drama, but at the same time, “Master of the House” is a pretty jarring song to be fitted in the narrative.  Fortunately, with the overly ambitious direction being what it is, they are at least performing up to the level of the film’s standards.  Truly catching me off guard was Samantha Barks as Eponine, the daughter of the Thenardiers, who gets caught up in the revolution as well.  Barks is a professional singer, who has performed this role on stage many times, but she really got to me in this film; much more than I was expecting.  I will throw a shout of praise out to Eddie Redmayne as well, who takes an otherwise bland personality and invests in him greatly.

It really comes down to accepting the direction of the film and finding yourself in tune with the performances in this film.  There is certainly not an issue with acting in this here, as I basically found it to be too good, given the uncomfortably close camera allowing me to read much more from the actors than one would generally be accustomed to in a musical.  The film does have the benefit of being genuinely engaging and intensely performed when it is at its best, and still an interesting musical experiment when it has you looking past its issues.  Les Miserables certainly revels in its ugliness at times as well (I actually didn’t get to the generally unappealing set design), but it can surely be described as unapologetic in its presentation.  What does count for a lot though, is that the film reaches its final moments, features a great number of people singing, and effectively brings up emotions for not just those on screen.  This somber holiday feature sets its sights high, has some issues akin to Icarus, but goes out with a “Wow them” sort of ending, so live to dream, I guess.
Chorus:  Do you hear the people sing, lost in the valley of the night?  It is the music of a people who are climbing to the light.

Aaron is a writer/reviewer for WhySoBlu.com.  Follow him on Twitter @AaronsPS3.
He also co-hosts a podcast,
Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.

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