REVIEW: Les Misérables

19 12 2012

Les Miserables“Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent,” wrote Victor Hugo in his novel “Les Misérables.”  Though his work has found expression in a number of different mediums since its publication in 1862, none has captured the public’s imagination quite like Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical.  It took the spirit of Hugo’s classic novel and put it on stage to powerful effect with an operatic score and poetic lyrics.

The endearing place “Les Misérables” holds in contemporary musical theatre is due to the supremacy of the music, featuring showstopper after showstopper that tug on the heartstrings and open the floodgates of the tear ducts.  I’ll go ahead and declare my lack of objectivity since I was fortunate enough to be a member of a production of “Les Misérables” in high school.  Watching the show from the audience is an ethereal experience, but living with that show for several weeks and being a part of conveying that show’s magic to an audience made it a truly spiritual experience for me.

However, theater does have its limitations.  Using terminology from cinematic camera proxemics, the audience is locked in perpetual longshot, forced to view the action from a distance.  Though the immediacy of the performer is felt, we see only broad strokes of emotion.  So for “Les Misérables” on stage, the potency must come across through the notes of the music, putting the emphasis on execution of the orchestra and the voices of the performers.

Yet these complex and well-written roles are a goldmine for actors, offering them chances to explore rich internal worlds and manifest them through beautiful song.  On stage, we are overcome by spectacle and score, so much so that we can lose the depth of the characters that build the colossus that is Hugo’s novel.  If the stage actor chooses to build in nuances in facial and body movement into their performance, it would be mainly for them alone as most in the auditorium would only be able to discern larger, grander motions.

Les Mis

However, Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” takes the story from stage to screen with an appropriate adaptation playing to the aesthetic strengths of cinema.  He hands over the musical to the actors and builds the film up from the characters they create.  With this transfer of power, some of the beauty is drained from the music that inspired audiences for decades.

But it is more than made up for by the stunning performances by the ensemble cast that fully realize their characters in song and thought, in physicality and emotionality.  The cast of “Les Misérables” sang live on each take, allowing Hooper to capture the moments of spontaneity and discovery that occur every night on a stage.  No longer governed by a decision made months before the shoot in a recording studio, the actors are endowed with the freedom to act with a naturalism that exacerbates the emotional devastation of the story.

I don’t even know where to begin on the outstanding acting in the film.  I suppose the easiest place to start is with Hugh Jackman, who guides us through the epic scale of “Les Misérables” as protagonist Jean Valjean.  Though the film is filled with supporting characters who each get their moment in the spotlight, Jackman never allows us to forget that the overarching story is that of Valjean and his quest to find redemption after 19 years in jail for a theft intended to protect his family.  Hooper isn’t afraid to feature the spirituality that provides such a crucial context for understanding Valjean’s quest, and combined with Jackman’s ferocious commitment, the journey becomes truly moving.

Of course, that odyssey would be nothing without Valjean’s rival in the police force, the antihero Javert, brought to life on screen by Russell Crowe.  His darkly pensive journey is conveyed by Crowe with enormous power all the way up to the tragic end with a distinct voice entirely appropriate for Javert.  After all, he is much more gruff, stern, and dishonest to himself than the other characters. Though perhaps he lacks the musical theatre or operatic voice that would be expected to fill out his uniform, Crowe never feels inadequate.

The movie’s shining star, though, is obviously Anne Hathaway in the flashy role of Fantine.  She passes quickly in the movie yet leaves an indelible mark on it.  As a mother driven to desperation to save her dying daughter, Hathaway knows the stakes for Fantine and communicates them to crushing effect to the audience.  She’s not just acting; she’s living and breathing as the character, best shown in the unbroken 3-minute take of her signature number, “I Dreamed a Dream.”

In that number, we see not just a song, but a lifetime of emotions expressed. All her hopes, her fears, her dreams, and her disappointments are laid bare for us with an unmatched poignancy.  There’s such an urgency being expressed that you can’t help but wither up and cry.  Fantine’s character arc might be small, but it sets the emotional bar sky-high for the rest of the film.

Others try to hurdle it, sure.  Amanda Seyfried as Cosette (and Isabelle Allen as her “Castle on a Cloud”-belting younger self) are innocence incarnate, but the movie minimizes the character so far to the sidelines it’s easy to forget that much of the story is set in motion because of her.  Samantha Barks’ Eponine, believed by many to be the female lead in the stage show, is similarly diminished in importance.  They even move her powerhouse number, “On My Own,” forward in the show to shorten her screen time; the result is a diluted potency.  Eponine’s parents, the crude Thernardiers, get their shot too with the gut-busting “Master of the House,” an outrageously funny number for the hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.

Les Miserables (2)

Yet by the end, Eddie Redmayne as Marius is able to match Hathaway’s intensity and impact.  Redmayne recognizes the unsung heroism of his character, who can all too often be reduced an item coveted by both Cosette and Eponine, and makes him a figure of truly noble character that is instantly sympathetic and winning.  In the film’s second half where Jean Valjean becomes a subplot, Redmayne takes control of the screen and commands it with charm and conviction.  And like Fantine, he gets to cap off his emotional voyage with a heart-wrenching number, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”  Within the song, Redmayne imparts just how tragic the story of “Les Misérables” is on a very human scale, a cost we feel deeply as we are stirred by his remarkable revelation of a performance.

And Tom Hooper, knowing the ability of film to capture performances with a searing intimacy, is right there with his camera to capture these miraculous realizations occurring in every frame.  He and director of photography Danny Cohen love to film in close-up, particularly during solo numbers, to make sure we know this is not an experience we could get from watching the stage musical.  At times, it works marvelously, and at others, it feels like getting hit with a sledgehammer.  But the close-ups do serve to supplant that feeling of nearness that is normally reserved only for the theatre, and that’s a remarkable achievement.

Even when the novelty of the close-ups wears off, we are still left to ponder just how radical and revolutionary Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is.  The musical genre has favored sweeping grandiosity for years in an attempt to replicate the stage experience for cinematic audiences.  Hooper, on the other hand, respects the live theatre’s conventions but throws out those that do not translate well to screen.

It especially works for this musical, which trades the glamour of most musicals for grunge and grit.  Hooper and Cohen’s camera captures all the squalor of the France with enough social inequality to spark a student rebellion.  There’s nothing clean and crisp about the way “Les Misérables” is shot or edited, yet it feels grander than any movie musical to date.

This ought to be the new template for the genre, both in terms of the parts and the sum.  Sure, some of the minutiae are flawed and could have been honed a little more.  But “Les Misérables” has always been a story about the bigger picture, about the larger emotions like love, hope, and salvation.  And though at times it stumbles, Hooper’s film always carries itself with an inspiring grace, one that it reaches out and spreads to all who will stop and hear the people sing.  A-3halfstars



One response

13 01 2018
Chapter Two – Films, Filmmaking and Filmmakers

[…] REFERENCE:  Marshall and the Movies – Review: Les Miserables […]

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