Friday, January 11, 2013

Les Miserables

It is hard to divorce the new Les Miserables from the enormous and detailed expectations that fans of the musical will bring to the film version. Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) and the other actors sang live on set to music being played in their earpieces; how will the stars stack up vocally? How will your favorite song be staged? If you’re invested in Les Miserables being good based on your love of the musical then rest easy; the film is a spectacle in the best sense, made and performed by well-chosen (for the most part), talented people working to the best of their ability. I am the wrong critic to parse one actor’s singing voice against another, but it’s my impression that while many of the performers might not be able to vocally fill a Broadway theatre they are above average for singing voices in a film. There is plenty for fans of the musical to digest in the film, but if you’re a Les Miserables novice like me the film version still offers the pleasure of large-scale Hollywood filmmaking done right.

The opening scene  of Les Miserables involves Valjean and his fellow convicts trying to move a sailing ship under the gaze of the policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Everything feels roomy and big in director Tom Hooper’s vision of this world; the ship is impossibly huge and the rooms that the characters occupy are much less dank and close than parts of 19th century Paris must have been. There is plenty of room left for all the emotion. Hugh Jackman is world-weary and tormented as Valjean in the opening scenes, and it’s as Valjean anguishes over trying to rob a Bishop (original stage Valjean Colm Wilkinson) that the rewards of Hooper’s choice for live singing reveal themselves. Hooper’s Les Miserables may not be the best sung version of this story but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie musical where I was more aware of good acting behind a song. The high water mark is of course the song that will be discussed, played on awards shows, and turned into GIFs for years to come: Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) performance of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Fantine’s slide from factory worker to degraded prostitute happens pretty quickly, but Hathaway’s performance of the show’s signature song transcends the limitations of Hooper’s directorial approach. Hooper doesn’t stage the songs so much as he watches them; he slams the camera into Hathaway’s face (other actors get the same treatment later) and lets her rip. Hathaway makes it work but as the film goes on the approach becomes more tiresome. We want to feel as if we’re in this world, not watching a movie.

Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne (as the revolutionary Marius) and young Daniel Huttlestone (as the boy Gavroche) are the anchors of Les Miserables, and Samantha Barks (as the lovesick Eponine) may be the best singer in the cast. Russell Crowe has come in for a good deal of the negative comment that the film has received for his performance as Javert. Crowe’s voice is clearly more limited than that of others in the cast but I don’t think it’s that bad; the only problem with his performance is that he can’t transcend the one-dimensionality of the role. Javert is a symbol of law, duty, and order, and the film doesn’t allow for the ambivalence of Crowe’s best roles until it’s too late. Was I moved by Les Miserables? Yes, but not as much as I think I would have been by a good stage production. We’re somehow more aware of the choices the director is making and I wonder if even the most emotionally involved fan might recognize a few places (scenes involving Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as two larcenous innkeepers, for example) where scenes could have been shortened or cut. Still, I can’t recall the last time I went to a movie and heard other audience members sniffling and snuffling around me. There are those who can find this or that to quibble about with the transition from stage to film, but Tom Hooper has taken a beloved property and made it live. Given the pressures involved in the attempt, that’s as much as any of us could have hoped for.

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