Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Review: "Les Miserables"

Director: Tom Hooper
Runtime: 157 minutes

For as BIG as Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is - the music, the decades-spanning story, the emotions - this adaptation of the mega-musical also contains a surprising intimacy. Aside from the decision to shoot the musical numbers live/on-camera, no one directing aspect has received as much attention as Mr. Hooper's close-ups on his actors' faces. It's a decision that, like much of the material on display here, will likely prove divisive (not to mention the fact that the film is almost entirely sung, even outside of standard songs). As someone completely unfamiliar with the stage show as a whole (I know a few songs and some major plot points), I had reason to fear for the worst. Yet, some missteps that arise in the middle sections aside, Hooper's film soared enough to turn me into a Les Mis convert. 

As far as plot goes, there's quite a bit (which is at times a slight problem). The basics are as follows: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), released on parole after 19 years in prison, seeks to rebuild his life while avoiding the unwavering lawman Javert (Russell Crowe). There's also a wrongfully disgraced factory worker (Anne Hathaway) and her daughter (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), a band of student revolutionaries (Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit), and a pair of nefarious inn-keepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Even at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the show (and as a result, the film) wobbles when it comes to condensing Victor Hugo's mammoth novel. Thankfully, there's a game cast delivering some rousing renditions of the epic score. Ultimately, how you feel about Les Miserables could come down to the music. If the musical material isn't working for you (ballads, sung-dialogue, etc...), then it might be best to leave early on. 

But not too early. Because at the very least it's worth staying around for what will inevitably become the film's signature moment: Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Though the scene's power in comparison to others has been overstated, this is the scene that will likely win over the hardest hearts, even if said hearts hate everything else the film has to offer. Hathaway's time as Fantine is brief, but she nails what little material she has, turning her doomed character into a suitable icon to loom over Valjean for the remainder of the story. Watching Hathaway's big moment highlights all that works in Les Mis, and how the soaring moments overcome the smaller missteps. Yet to cite "I Dreamed a Dream" as the sole shining moment of the film does a disservice to so many other moments.

Carrying the bulk of the narrative is Jackman's Jean Valjean. Though his songs are some of the least melodically compelling, the actor compensates by marvelously acting through them. One of his earliest moments, the expositional "Soliloquoy," pales in comparison to nearly every song, yet succeeds thanks to Jackman's ferocious commitment. Jackman blasts through the screen as Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen hone the camera in on his face, allowing himself to falter with words, his voice breaking on carefully chosen words to bring a sense of character to the discordant music. Jackman is forced to stick to his upper register, where his voice starts to veer towards shrillness, but the power he brings to the numbers remains compelling. 

The rest of the cast fare equally well, even though some have less material to work with. Eddie Redmayne, among the cast's stronger vocalists, makes the potentially bland Marius an engaging presence. His work opposite his fellow student rebels (led by a magnetic Aaron Tveit as Enjolras) resonates, and his one time to shine as a soloist reaches the same emotional magnificence of Fantine's anguished cry in the dark. His pair of romantic interests handle themselves well, even as the material lets them down compared to the ensemble. Amanda Seyfried does her best to turn adult Cosette into a compelling presence, but ultimately the role doesn't have quite enough weight to it. Then there's Samantha Barks' Eponine, who sings quite well, but lacks the screen presence of those around her.

Less immediately entertaining are the story's comedic relief cast members, the nefarious Thenardiers (Cohen and Bonham Carter). For those not acquainted with the material, the Thenardiers' "Master of the House" could prove awkwardly stitched together and jarring, considering the material that comes before. The Thenardiers' presence is something of a mixed bag throughout, and the might have better served the film with fewer, more carefully chosen, scenes. 

Last, but not least, is Russell Crowe as Valjean's tireless nemesis, Inspector Javert. Crowe has become the single most divisive element of the cast, yet I have to confess that I found the actor compelling, despite his thinner vocals. Crowe's limited range fits into an interesting rock opera range, yet thanks to the close-ups, he's able to make it work. Both of Javert's big solos, vocal rough patches and all, managed to give me the right kind of chills. Redmayne is the vocal star of the supporting cast, but as far as acting is concerned, it is Crowe who truly makes every moment count. 

With the cast generally turning in strong work, however, there's still the matter of everything around them. And thankfully, despite some shortcomings, Hooper and his behind the scenes collaborators have brought their A game. The cinematography, wide angle lenses and all, gives the songs a sense of immediacy. These are not the prettiest renditions of the score, yet thanks to the use of close-ups, they are guided from their lofty pedestals down to a much more human and visceral level. And Cohen's camera also captures the often dark scenes with a surprising richness, and the scenes set in daylight possess a painterly texture that fits wonderfully with the time period. Technical aspects, despite the inherent dreariness of the setting, are also aces. The stylized sets and costumes are bold and textured, and the makeup ranges from wonderfully subtle (Valjean's aging) to appropriately cartoonish (Mme Thenardier in particular).

Yet for all that Mr. Hooper gets right as a director, he does make some decisions that get in the way of his cast, rather than helping them. Given the magnetism of the performances, Hooper's framing can be overlooked. Less forgivable is his staging of certain numbers, which isn't helped by the occasionally fussy editing. It's going too far to say that the film succeeds in spite of Hooper's direction, but some of his choices do provide some unnecessary hurdles. However, Hooper does allow the camera to settle in enough places to create some stirring (and stable) imagery. 

And when Les Miserables soars, it does so magnificently. The songs of the student rebels are among the most rousing, and lend the film a new sense of energy as new characters and arcs are introduced. Even when characters appear  as though the entire cast was living in a shrunken version of Paris, the music's power in the hands of the ensemble remains undeniable. The richness and grandeur of this musical epic remain fully intact, despite the deliberately unpolished vocals. Whether you weep or find yourself lifted in triumph, Hooper's shamelessly epic treatment of the material, coupled with the bracingly intimate treatment of the performances, manages to rise to the occasion over the technical bumps in the road. It may take some time to adjust (I have seen the film twice now), but even for the uninitiated, there is potential for this extremely faithful version to win you over. Or, at the very least, you can hear the people sing, and hopefully like some of what you hear. Les Miserables is full throttle in its sincerity (there's no Sweeney Todd-style black comedy) and devotion to the musical/operetta form. As such, it will undeniably turn off plenty, whether they be those driven away by the music, or Hooper's direction. Yet for those with whom the film even partially connects, there will be moments that register with a level of old fashioned majesty that's worth singing about.

Grade: B+/A-

No comments: