Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Do You Hear the People Sing?
Les Miserables (2012) / UK / Out in cinemas now / Directed by Tom Hooper / Written by William Nicholson, based on the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil and the novel by Victor Hugo / Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter / 157 mins
Les Miserables is a tough egg to crack. For any newbies, going along for a quiet Tuesday matinee of Tom Hooper's film adaptation might find themselves a little disconnected, jaded by the amount of topics it burns through and wondering how people got to be where they are. I am one of those people who are a Les Miserables 'veteran'. A couple of years back, I did the make-up for the stage production that was in town. This was a huge deal for Dannevirke, since the cast could probably be made up of our entire population, the budget was high and we were putting on one of the most professional productions this town has ever seen. While I never actually got to see the production on stage as I spent most of my time backstage, I'd seen enough rehearsals and heard enough of the songs to have them etched into my memory. Going into Les Mis, I was in the mindset that I'd love it - to be honest, this was another one of those War Horse cases but since the end of my blogging is nigh I won't be defending it quite as vociferously - and I did. That's because I knew what the story involved. People must bear in mind that the book is over 1000 pages long, and then the musical is over 3 hours long. So condensing this enormous story with lots going on into a cinematic spectacle for a modern audience was always going to be difficult, and it succeeds, for the most part - probably just for us Les Mis fans.
Yes, Les Mis burns through a whole lot of topics really fast. So here's a basic synopsis for anyone not in the know: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) steals some bread, lands himself in jail, lives there being known as 24601. Javert (Russell Crowe) has some real issues with Valjean. Valjean gets released on parole but if he gets on the wrong side of the law, he'll be reverted to being 24601. Valjean reinvents himself as a rich mayor of a town and he meets the sick Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is trying to raise money for her daughter but she loses her job at the factory, so she becomes a prostitute. Valjean saves her when she's sick and when she dies, he vows to find her daughter. All the while, Javert is still angry at Valjean. Fantine's daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, later played by Amanda Seyfried) lives with innkeepers the Thenadier's (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who abuse her and adorn their love upon their own daughter Eponine (Natalya Wallace, later played by Samantha Barks). Valjean takes Cosette and you guessed it, Javert is on their tails. A few years later we're into the French Revolution. Eponine loves Marius (Eddie Redmayne) but Marius sees Cosette and essentially stalks her, but then Cosette and Valjean have to flee for the 24601st time. Marius and his buddy Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) decide they want to lead some revolutioning and that doesn't really work out for them. And yeah, I'm just about at the end of the story, so I may as well leave some element of surprise.
The story is a complete mess if you find yourself looking for a narrative. This is Jean Valjean's life, so he's essentially being Forrest Gump is he was born in the 1800's and instead of being dumb, started out as poor and built his life from there. However, that's the beauty of it - it has enough meat to be a million movies in one, and while the movie glosses over a lot of the topics, there are some nice subtle touches that keep everything intact. One thing I will say, though, is that Tom Hooper didn't quite know how to handle a musical of this scope. He really loves his close ups. I can see why he'd want to do that - the show has made it's name on the stage where you aren't allowed to be so up close and personal with the characters, but here you're so close you get less emotional connection. It kind of worked during 'I Dreamed a Dream', where he does a one take close up on Anne Hathaway, but the rest of the time it just gets so distracting. During action shots he does close ups which turn into unfocussed messes. There are some brief flashes of his style that works, such as the cuts he uses for the beginning of 'At the End of the Day', and I've always been fond of the way he puts his subject to the side of the screen (which is used a lot in The King's Speech), but otherwise, he does a really shoddy job of translating this to the screen. You tried, Hooper, you really did.
However, Les Miserables really can only stand up on the power of the people playing the famous characters, and with all of the dialogue sung, their singing talents better be in check. Some fare a little better than others. Hugh Jackman is a wonderful Valjean, and this is a role so very worthy of his talents. Russell Crowe doesn't have a great singing voice but he does add a nice subtle touch to Javert, making him more human when really all he does is shit on Valjean 24/7. Amanda Seyfried was pretty okay, but I wasn't a fan of her constant vibratto. I loved Eddie Redmayne in this - he's come a long way from being that really boring brick of a person in My Week with Marilyn. Samantha Barks was a stand out - her voice was wonderful, and considering this is her big screen debut, she's got a huge future ahead of her on both the screen and the stage. Aaron Tveit was a nice surprise as Enjolras, who's always been a personal favourite character of mine. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were uniformly funny. And yes, I adored Anne Hathaway in this film. She was nothing short of fantastic in such a brief role. I wouldn't say that this was the perfect cast, but it was enough for me.
It is always hard to defend a film so maligned during awards season because it got nominated over everyone's favourite indie films or whatever, but we all know that once the Oscars are over, we'll forget about this film. Just like 99.8% of the world's population forgot about War Horse. So for now: yes, I liked it, almost loved it, even. In a few months, maybe I'll recommend it at work. Not every Oscar nominee can be a masterpiece. This sure as hell isn't, but I honestly don't care all that much about that. I'll just be there clapping when Anne Hathaway wins her Oscar.
What I got: