Friday, December 28, 2012

Film Review: Les Misérables is a Faithful Representation of Its Source- Perhaps Too Faithful

“Les Misérables is soooo faithful.”

“How faithful is it?”

“It’s so faithful that even the Bishop who gave Valjean his silver told it to lighten up.”

As musical adaptations go, Les Misérables does exactly what it intends to do I can’t think of one in recent years (or really, ever) that works so hard to capture every moment of the play that it is based on. Not a scene goes missing nor a lyric unsaid, and the cast and director Tom Hooper deserve a great deal of credit for taking what was once the most spectacular (emphasis on spectacle) of modern musicals and making it just as spectacular on the screen. Unfortunately, without the distance of a proscenium and orchestra pit between the characters and the audience, so much fealty to the material magnifies everything not just the genuinely earned moments of emotion and release provided by the sometimes-thin book and score, but also much of the inherent triteness and cheese that even the most devoted fans have laughed off over the 30 years that Les Mis has been performed on stages around the world.

Despite being based on a doorstop of a novel by Victor Hugo, the Dickens of France, the plot of Les Mis, the musical, is episodic and often sketchy. The prologue of the film introduces us to the 19th Century French convict Jean Valjean (a suitably de-handsomed Hugh Jackman), who in a few moments of recitative explains to the audience and his tormentor, the rigid Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), that he was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry sister and nephew and has now earned his parole by working at hard labor for 19 years. In turn, Javert points out that Valjean will never be free of his torment as long as he has to show the identification papers that brand him a dangerous criminal. 

What follows is a series of falls from grace and moments of redemption for Valjean, who is taught, in succession, the meaning of forgiveness from a Bishop he attempts to rob (Colm Wilkinson, the first Valjean on the West End and Broadway); the meaning of compassion by his former-employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway, who wrings every possible moment of genuine emotion and several more moments of the false kind in her brief time on film); and the meaning of love by Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), whom he adopts after Fantine dies from what one can only assume is musical syphilis. He does this all while running away from Javert and successfully remaking himself as a rich businessman several times. 

At the same time (or rather, about a third of the way through the film), a French revolution not THAT one, which took place years earlier, but another, not particularly successful one – is being fomented by a combination of impoverished citizens, bourgeois students, and plucky waifs. It is due to those political events that a now-teenaged Cosette meets radical Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius then is given his own struggle, namely the reconciliation of his love for Cosette with both the urchin Éponine’s (Samantha Barks) love for him, and his revolutionary ideals, which are embodied by the revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), who appears to be struggling with a bit of a crush on Marius, too. Along the way everyone Valjean meets finds him or herself either illuminated or tortured by his nobility, with the exception of the comic relief reprobates (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) who conveniently end up in every town Valjean and Javert do.

Somehow these events manage to simultaneously be light on detail and long on running time. In the stage musical, this is saved by both the spectacle and the score, which has been derided by some as being unsophisticated but which manages on a visceral level to be emotionally stirring. I am happy to say that there are many, many moments where the spectacle and score do the same on screen. 

Visually, Les Misérables is the very definition of “epic.” The sets are convincingly 19th century and French. The actors are carefully covered in grime and sores and are dressed the way people imagine the French to dress. The battles are bloody and well-shot. There are plenty of helicopter shots and crane shots and sweeping panoramas that fully justify seeing this movie on the big screen. Meanwhile, the orchestrations are suitably grand and the music (which never stops the film is almost completely sung-through) works as well as it does on stage, which is to say that if you like Les Misérables’ score (and I do) you will still like it here.


As grand a spectacle as Les Mis is on the stage, it is still very much a stage show. Take away the turntable and the magically-forming barricade and the various lighting effects, and one still is aware that he is sitting in a theater. It is a paradox of musicals that, more often than not, the more “realistic” the show is, the less easy it is to actually believe it. Even the biggest musical theater fans (and I’m certainly among them) recognize the inherent oddness of characters bursting into song when a few casual statements will do. We suspend our disbelief because on stage emotion has the space to be genuinely sentimental and genuinely big. A little brown powder on the face and the occasional red-dyed corn syrup on the shirt are more than enough to convey dirt and blood on the “martyrs of France” on stage. But seeing live rats on stage or genuine sewage would not add verisimilitude in fact, it would take us out of the moment. And that is the issue with this adaptation it is both note-for-note faithful to the show and also faithful to the film concept of “reality.”

On stage, it is very easy to be taken in by the rote-but-meaningful degradation of Fantine, and to genuinely feel for her. When she finally sings the piano-bar staple “I Dreamed a Dream” it is a release, and it is sentimental, and it works. It is quite another thing, however, to witness America’s Sweetheart Anne Hathaway getting her hair sheared off, her teeth pulled, and her body abused in every gory detail. When I saw in high definition every bit of her becoming debased, deranged, and diseased, and then heard “I Dreamed a Dream” – well, it was hard not to find it a little trite. What once created pathos now just creates bathos.

It also has to be mentioned that Les Mis is a long show. In the theater, audiences get the respite of an intermission and the emotional outlet of applauding the curtain close on the Act I ending number, “One Day More.” On film there is no intermission, and “One Day More” simply…ends. Then we’re back into the long slog of battles and cat-and-mouse-chases and endless suffering experienced by the poor of France. After the last decent number, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” we then get to sit through an ending that rivals Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in its number of epilogues. Having seen the musical numerous times I knew what was coming but even I started checking my watch while waiting for the damn kids to get married and Valjean to just die, already. It’s here that it would have been nice for Hooper to start asserting directorial privilege and “adapt” rather than “reproduce.”

Much has been made of Hooper’s controversial decision to record the actors singing live rather than lip-syncing to a soundtrack as has been done in practically every movie musical since the forties (with the exception of Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love, which has stood for years as proof of why live recording should never, ever be attempted). It is a testament to how far film technology has come, as well as the gameness of the actors and the skill of the director, that it isn’t noticeable at all. I am not sure whether it added anything to the film, but it certainly didn’t take anything away from it. 

Unfortunately, as has been the case with movie musicals since Chicago revived the genre a decade ago, the actors seem to have been cast in spite of their voices, rather than because of them. Jackman does a very good job of both acting and singing a demanding part, and he deserves credit for about 50% of what works in the film. Even though he doesn’t really have the type of singing voice I’ve come to expect from stage Valjeans, he at least has a singing voice, and he uses it to good effect here, as one would expect from his musical theater background. Hathaway also proves that she is a decent singer, though her one big song could have used a little less Acting-with-a-capital-A.

Crowe, on the other hand, is simply not a very good singer, and could have benefited from  studio recording. This is a shame, because he is perfectly cast as the imposing and stalwart Javert and would have done very well by the role if it had been in a non-musical film. It was jarring that every time he opened his mouth I expected to hear a menacing baritone and instead heard an Australian whine sung directly through the nose. I suspect this is why he appeared to be  the only actor in the movie who lost a verse of his big number.

I know I’m in the minority when I say that Redmayne is miscast as Marius, and I know a lot of people find him very attractive. He is a good actor. But he is certainly the most Howdy Doodyish-actor I’ve seen in the role (with the exception of constipated-looking Nick Jonas, who appeared in the recent anniversary concert), and his singing voice, while on key, is sung through a constricted throat and a clenched jaw, which makes him sound vaguely like Kermit the Frog doing a Nelson Eddy impersonation. On the other hand, Seyfried as Cosette is fine. She suffers from the fact that the character has always been a weak link in the show -it’s not the first time I’ve found myself wondering why Marius falls for her insipidity instead of the far more interesting and lovable Éponine – but she does what she can with the part, and while her voice isn’t strong it is tuneful.

Speaking of Éponine, she is played by one of the standouts of the movie. Barks is one of the few actors in the film to underplay rather than over-emote, which is especially impressive considering that on stage her role is usually overdone to the point of being annoying. Barks deserves kudos for being the least whiny, most genuinely moving Éponine I’ve ever seen. The other standout is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, who manages to both be convincing in his role and also able to actually sing. I am sure it is not a coincidence that the three best singers in the film (four including Wilkinson, who sounds exactly like he did 25 years ago) are the ones who have actually appeared on stage in musical theater. What is astonishing is that they are also the four actors who seem most aware of the fact that they are not on stage and don’t have to mug for the back row.

I am not forgetting Cohen and Carter as the Thenardiers, though I would like to. Restraint is in neither actor’s repertoire, but their mugging and Cohen’s bizarre accent choices (he sings “Master of the House” as though he’s playing Peter Sellers playing Inspector Clouseau playing an innkeeper) take them to a new level of irritating. Their comic relief characters blend seamlessly with the action in the stage version and are generally a welcome break from all of the portentousness and pretension. In this adaptation, however, they appear to be in an entirely different movie than everyone else. 

The movie that everyone else appears in is a good movie. It is not a “great” movie by any means, but then again it isn’t a “great” show to start with. Is it worth seeing? Of course - but don’t drink a lot of water beforehand, and don’t expect to replace your beloved London Cast Recording with the soundtrack. Ultimately, Les Mis is best in a live theater, with a live cast and an audience you can walk out humming the songs with. Les Misérables, the movie musical, is a great record of a show that for better or for worse has become a cultural phenomenon, but it is still only a (very magnified) copy of the real thing.

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