Tuesday, January 1, 2013

LES MISERABLES IS FAR FROM A MISERABLE EXPERIENCE


With perhaps a couple of exceptions, I have never been overly fond of musicals. That’s not necessarily an indictment of the genre, just a matter of personal taste. Some people dislike horror films, while others have no use for action adventure pictures. For me, my attitude regarding “spontaneous” breaking into song is akin to those of the residents of Queens’ reaction to Eddie Murphy’s “Prince Akeem” doing so in Coming to America. However, I did promise myself to keep an open mind while sitting through Director Tom Hooper’s big screen adaptation of Les Miserables, itself adapted from the stage musical which was adapted from the eponymous novel by Victor Hugo…and I’m glad I did. It is a film that, despite some serious missteps in terms of casting, proves as powerful and viscerally evocative as any grand Broadway production.

Hugh Jackman plays ”Jean Valjean”, the tortured victim of circumstance whose attempt at kindness dooms him to an excessive 19 year prison sentence. He is paroled under the extreme reluctance from his arch enemy Jarvert (a somewhat miscast but serviceable Russell Crowe). After having seen the depths that he has fallen following his robbing a church where a priest (and only human being to have shown him any mercy) has taken him in despite his larcenous stigma, Valjean has an epiphany. He resolves to create a new life for himself at the expense of his true identity, thus breaking both parole and the law. Jackman’s training as a “song-and-dance man” not only services the musical nature of the film, but in the nature of his performance. What is impressive is that he invokes age not through make up but body language. He never delves into caricature but his body evokes the burden and weariness that age can beget. No more is this evident than when his character makes a fateful decision at the end of the Revolution near the story's end.

Anne Hathaway’s small but pivotal role as “Fantine” is cathartic, as her character is the catalyst that sets the rest of the story into motion. Hence, it is a part heavy with dramatic responsibility. By the time she performs what is perhaps the musical’s signature piece, one is completely bought in by her grief and despair. Hathaway is one of those rare actresses who can portray in turn both ravishing beauty and plain ordinary and in this film she expresses both, symbolizing the theme of chance; of how fortunes can turn at a second’s moment. But this is not the only example of this theme. There is a lugubrious turgidity to Danny Cohen’s deft cinematography that could not be duplicated on stage. The dismal, oft-times CGI-enhanced, atmosphere serves to heighten the existential despair that infuses the plot. The weather and ruinous environs reflect the turmoil that infuses the souls of some characters and the pestilence in others. Is life a matter of existential capriciousness or divine plan? Does God exist or do fortunes change in an instant without conscious provocation? The story does not answer these questions but makes an argument for each in a way that only film-making can. There is one particularly poignant moment at the climax which, due to the manner in which the shots were orchestrated, make a clever inference to a divine plan, but done so subtly that it could itself be intentional or otherwise; as ambiguous an assertion as the spinning top at the end of Christopher Nolan’s Inception. This is but one example of how the format actually elevates the message of the film.

The film’s first casting misstep was in assigning Russell Crowe the part of lawman ”Javert”, a character who engages in a decades-long quest to return Valjean to justice or, rather, to conform to the letter of the law, for justice is not to be found anywhere in the proceedings. As a singer, Crowe ties with Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia in terms of voice-straining lyrical expression. His portrayal of the character itself is a mixed bag, however. He seems oddly detached from the role; nor does he disappear into it. It seems like instead of Javert, its Russell Crowe attempting a musical. However, Crowe does make some interesting choices in his portrayal. His stiffness of bearing mirrors that of his character’s rigid worldview and it is only when his belief system begins to crack near the end is there a slight, subtle waiver of that rigidity (notably the final rooftop scene). However, his enmity against Valjean is palpable when he and Jackman share their scenes. One can come away believing that Crowe, if not Javert, would doggedly pursue Valjean for decades.

The other casting missteps would have, ironically, seemed a perfect pairing. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter portray the larcenous “Thenardiers”, characters who ostensibly, despite the menace they are supposed to portray, bring some much required comic relief to the proceedings. However, Bonham Carter sometimes seems to be “Bellatrix Lestrange” in a different set of clothes, bringing nothing really to differentiate this character from others of the like she has previously portrayed. Most egregious, though, is Cohen. His “M. Thenardier” is oddly subdued, bringing neither menace nor over-the-top ridiculousness which the character requires nor, quite frankly, the actor is known for (his terrible, and the film’s only, French accent at odds with Carter’s out of place Cockney, does nothing to help matters). Could it be that either Cohen, or Hooper made a conscious choice to have Cohen dial down his usual outrageousness so as not to overshadow the other performances? If so it was an egregious error for this role is one that actually calls for that sort of outrageousness. I should not be watching a performance and wishing that it was Tim Curry in the role. It is not to say that their performances are completely wretched; far from it. It just seems a disappointment that there was such fertile acting ground left somewhat unplowed.

Of the supporting roles, Amanda Seyfried as “Cosette”, Broadway actress Samantha Barks as “Eponine”, and young Daniel Huttlestone as “Gavroche” are the most notable. Seyfried takes a role that could have been played in banal fashion and infuses it with an intelligence that makes her more than just a pretty face; her Cosette is aware of her surroundings and in tune with the world around her. She knows things are amiss even when she does not know the reason why. In the role she evidently made her own on Broadway, Barks makes you ache for Eponine’s plight in loving a man who loves another. The two actresses counter-balance each other and further epitomize the theme of circumstantial fickleness. Huttlestone is one of those child actors who can give a natural performance; one wonderfully lacking in the usual “aren't I precocious” pretentions that some child actors evince. It is a very mature performance for one so young.

As far as the pacing goes, the drama unfolds smoothly. Further, unlike many films where a story evolves through the course of years but only seems to take place within the time constraints of the movie’s length, there is a definite sense of the passage of time, thereby infusing a sense of the epic to the proceedings. The CGI is a bit jarring at times, especially at the very beginning, but not fatally so. The drama develops in such a manner that one can disappear into it. This film is notable in that the performers sang on set as opposed to a studio in post-production, with piano and/or orchestral renditions being piped strategically into the actors ears from another location, so the performances and singing happen almost spontaneously, giving a much more organic and natural development to the action which is wonderfully lacking in the bombasity that some film-adapted musicals evoke (as natural as spontaneously bursting into song can be, that is).

I can understand how this film can be a point of contention for those who have seen any Broadway production over the years. However, as a film on its own, it is a flawed triumph. Only the most hardened of souls would be hard pressed not to share a tear at some point before the closing credits begin to roll. Despite its musical trappings, it is highly relatable. These people could be anyone, anywhere. The themes of loss, despair, and dreams unrealized are universal ones, as are hope in the face of adversity.

In the final analysis, though, Les Miserables is a flawed feast replete with themes of loss and redemption whose heights do not soar as highly as it should for its wings are clipped by the limitations of its casting. Yet soar it does and, even if you’re one who has a blasé “take-it-or-leave-it” attitude towards the genre like I do, by the time the final number is being sung, you are moved to sing along with the chorus…even if you don’t know the words.

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