Les Misérables

PhotobucketLes Misérables is an achievement, the cinematic realization that fans have waited almost 3 decades. The stage musical is a global sensation. It opened in London on October 1985 and has run continuously since. The Broadway rendition debuted 2 years after the West End debut and became the fourth longest-running show in U.S. history. The road from stage to screen has been a long journey with a storied development beginning in the late 1980s. It’s safe to say expectations were very high. Under the direction of Tom Hooper, the production is realized as a thrilling success, with minor caveats.

It is the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant who serves 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving family. He’s prisoner 24601! With the blessing of a sympathetic Bishop, Valjean breaks parole to start a new life as an honest man. He makes good on his promise and becomes a benevolent factory owner and mayor full of kindness and understanding. Unfortunately he is still relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert who is beholden to the law. We’re also introduced to a large company of various individuals all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution .

In any drama with a large ensemble, there is a danger that the production can become cumbersome or scattered as more individuals begin to pop up. What impresses is that director Tom Hooper deftly handles the large ensemble of actors giving us an intimacy with each one that benefits their character and our sentimental attachment to each story. He makes the questionable decision to film the singing live ostensibly to make the story’s emotional component more of the moment. There’s definitely an immediacy to the proceedings, but at times the vocals suffer. The time-honored movie musicals have always relied on the perfect take. As this is a movie musical and not being performed on stage, why not take advantage of that fact. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to studio record and enhance the clarity of the vocals? Nothing against Anne Hathaway’s stunning portrayal of Fantine, but when she’s sobbing uncontrollably all throughout the famous number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ it really is a bit of a buzzkill. I usually tear up every time I hear that majestic song with it’s high notes and sweeping strings. Yet when she sang it, I didn’t. As a performance she’s incredible, however.

And speaking of performances, Hugh Jackman is quite simply extraordinary. Rarely have I seen an actor combine the vocal chops with acting ability to create a moving achievement that is among the most accomplished in film musical history. What’s so extraordinary is that he finds a vibrancy that immediately draws you into his story as if you’ve known him all your life. Russell Crowe isn’t anywhere close to his match as Javert, his nemesis, but he does provide a counterpoint to Jean Valjean. I’ve seen the play twice performed on the stage, in 1990 and again this year 2012. I understood Crowe’s character arc better in this production than I ever have before. What he lacks in vocal strength, he more than makes up for in raw emotion.

They’re skillfully energized by a strong supporting cast. There’s much too many parts to detail individually, but I should mention Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who provide wonderful comic relief as corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the student revolutionary, whose vocals are just as powerful as they need to me. And I most assuredly must highlight Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius is surprisingly one of the narrative’s most affecting moments. Her song ‘On My Own’ was a floodgate of emotion for me. The ‘In My Life/A Heart Full Of Love’ is another high point, both of them singing along with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, the harmony of their voices overlapping like some heavenly trio. Their hymn, one of love discovered, the other of love lost, is heartbreaking.

Les Misérables isn’t perfect, but it’s an absolute joy to anyone who’s a fan of Hollywood cinema on a lofty scale. And why shouldn’t it be grand? The chronicle is based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. Perhaps because it feels as if the musical has always been with us, it’s difficult to imagine a time when adapting the somber tome of French literature into a musical was actually a radical concept. This is rather depressing stuff but in the hands of director Tom Hooper, it is an emotionally involving, monumental saga in the timeless tradition of classic movie musicals. The story is sweeping, the vocals are (mostly) impressive and the lavish production is a marvel – the kind Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s. I love that this version made me see things I never noticed before. Les Misérables is paean to the beauty and romance of Victor Hugo’s well known French tale and indeed of grand filmmaking at its most epic.

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19 Responses to “Les Misérables”

  1. Good review, interesting that you didn’t like Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I dreamed a Dream though, it was actually one of my favorite parts of the film. I’m not a huge fan of musicals in the format that Les Mis uses (w/ nearly every line sung) but that song touched me more deeply than any other part of the film.

    • It’s definitely an emotional performance. I’m ranking Les Misérables with the great musicals of Hollywood which I think it compares very favorably to. It’s a musical – already a fantasy – so I was expecting a little more illusion and less earthy realism.

  2. Fun, slightly depressing story:

    I went to see this the day after it opened. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it, but I kind of wish I hadn’t seen it. My father was rambling about how it was the greatest movie he’d EVER seen (topping even Citizen Kane and The Godfather!) as soon as we’d left the theater. Leave aside my annoyance with people whose favorites are so recent and don’t take but a moment to consider every film they’ve ever watched. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder, so the only sentence I ever hear is, “I still think Les Mis is the greatest movie ever.”

    So tonight, we rented Moonrise Kingdom.

    Before:

    “It’s #1 on your best of the year list?”

    “Yes.”

    “What about Les Mis?”

    “#6.”

    “You need to get your priorities straightened out.”

    During:

    “This is about as bizarre as Blue Velvet.”

    “Different kind of bizarre you’re thinking of.”

    “Les Mis is far better. Why didn’t we rent that?”

    (I shiver to wonder if he, a Duke grad, has early onset Alzheimer’s.)

    “It won’t be on home video for another five or six months.”

    (two minutes later)

    “This is weird.”

    “You just said that. It’s the director’s style, as I warned you all in the beginning.”

    After:

    “That was bizarre.”

    (I ignored him)

    “You guys [save for my eleven-year-old sister, surprisingly enough] didn’t enjoy it?”

    “It’s weird!”

    (ignored the repetition)

    “Yet you love your daughter to pieces!?”

    (she took no offense to this and actually agreed)

    “Of course!”

    “You know what I thought of the film?”

    (they didn’t want to hear, but, you know…)

    Me: “Once you get past all the exaggeration, it’s a great message about family values and love. Did you not see all that trouble those men and women went through to save the lives of two twelve-year-olds, and only THAT made them realize how much they loved both of them?”

    My father: “Why couldn’t we have just watched a more straightforward film like…Les Mis?? I’d watch that 1000 times before I’d watch this.”

    Good review, but…I guess I wish it had come earlier so I didn’t have to cringe upon the title. 😉 If my life were currently being taped like the Truman Show I’d call it Nightmare Right After Christmas and Only Ending When I Have the Words “R.I.P the Man who Underrated Les Mis” on my headstone.

    • Wow that was like a little short story there. I’ll only say that I’m happy to see Les Misérables found its way into your Top 10 for the year.

      • Thanks.

        And I know haha! It was like a short story. Didn’t even realize it. I was excited all day to get the email, then my father wouldn’t stop talking about Les Mis as we were watching Moonrise Kingdom. It really got on my nerves, and I just happened to check my email right after. Saw the review, read it, hit “reply,” and that’s where my rant went. 😉

  3. Excellent review. This isn’t really my cup of tea, but it’s nice to hear Wolverine, Catwoman and Maximus are in good form.

  4. I don’t know if it’s because I saw the play this year, or because I have all the songs memorized, but I loved this movie. I do agree with you about Annes’ performance of “I dreamed a dream”. It was too weepy and not powerful enough. I thought all the other characters were great! 4 1/2 stars.

  5. I do understand a lot of your points but as you mentioned on my site, we both see it differently. Perhaps it is because I’m such a huge fan of the novel, and you a fan of the stage production. Either way, great review. I can agree to disagree when it’s written so well 😉

    • Good point. Victor Hugo’s novel is probably the most valid approach to this story. After all, it came first obviously. I just appreciated the musical for the emotional sweep of it all.

  6. MissMolotov Says:

    Amazing review! I agree with you on most points…as I have seen many of the stage productions of it before the movie. But I appreciate them both in separate ways. I will be coming here for movie reviews in the future!

  7. Beautiful review, Mark. Really want to check this one out. I’m super annoyed that its release in Mexico has been bumped more than a month. It was supposed to open on January 11th and now it won’t hit theaters until Feb. 15!

  8. Great review, Mark. I agree with you on Anne’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” The cut they used, I wish they might’ve used a different one. I was moved more by the one playing in the trailer because the sobs took away from it for me. away from its majesty as you put it. Was wondering if I was the only one who felt that way.

    Glad to see I wasn’t. Nice.

    • You felt that way too? Well you are clearly a highly sentient being like myself. lol

      It’s funny because I know several people who were rather nonplussed by the film overall, yet they adored Anne Hathaway’s singing. How odd that as this “superfan”, that was the one song that felt lacking to me. Oh well. I still loved the film obviously.

  9. mellis903 Says:

    This is a great review. I’m a new blogger just starting out and it would mean a lot if you could check out my review of Les Miserables too at http://becausetumblrsmells.wordpress.com/2013/01/11/les-miserables-2013/
    Thanks 🙂

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