Sunday, March 24, 2013

Les MostlyAbles

      I first discovered the stage musical version of Les Miserables at age sixteen on a trip that my high school theater department took to New York.  It was love at first sight (sound?).  I don't think that I have ever literally cried so many times in a few hours in my whole life.  It quickly became my favorite Broadway show ever (okay, tied with Cabaret).  Obviously, when it comes to musical theater, I pull a little to the dark side.  Which is why I was concerned when I found out that Tom Hooper the (okay, yes, Oscar winning) director of The King's Speech was going to be helming the long awaited film adaptation of the play.  After all, this is the director who turned a story about disability and World War into a charming little lark about an unlikely friendship and now he chooses to take on the bloodiest, gloomiest musical ever made.
      Despite my reservations about what manner of mood shifts Mr. Hooper might bring to the piece, I couldn't deny that he had assembled an amazing cast and my anticipations ran VERY high.  Word that he was going to make the innovative move of having the actors singing live within the scenes rather than prerecording the voice tracks only fanned the flames of my excitement.  "So...", I hear you wondering, "Did Mr. Hooper remain true to the starkness of his source material or fall prey to his schmaltzier tendencies?".  The answer, sort of dispassionately, is: a little of both to be honest.
      On the positive side, the choice to have the actors sing live was a rousing 95% success.  One actor's lack of musical proclivity may have been accentuated, but the honesty of emotion that it lent to the rest of the performances is undeniable.  Hooper was also able to pull some terrific work out of MOST of the cast, as he did in The King's Speech.  The man is obviously a gifted actor's director.
     On the not so positive side, those with cinematically weak stomachs might want to take some Lactaid before viewing a FEW of the scenes.  I'll just give one quick example.  In the stage play, the song One Day More ends the first act as all of the characters join in slowly until it creates a tableau of the players that freezes with several members of the general cast hoisting French flags to complete the picture.  While slightly contrived, this is an accepted convention of stage craft that works in that medium.  In conversion to film, Hooper chose to show all of the individual characters singing their parts of One Day More in the separate locations where they would logically be at the time, which is great.  On the final note, however, Hooper flashes to random French citizens hoisting French flags in the street for no apparent reason and then cuts with no segue whatsoever to what was designed to be the beginning of Act II, Scene I, presented after an intermission.  This climax and (lack of) transition significantly undermine the inherent power of one of the most affecting numbers in the production.
      Besides a few cheesy directorial flourishes such as these, I really only find two faults with the film.    I really hate singling actors out and he's already taken a lot of flack from almost every reviewer on the planet, but this is not Russell Crowe's finest hour (or two and a half hours, but why quibble?).  Suffice it to say that this usually far more capable actor is horridly miscast, mostly because his singing is always strained and often slightly off key.  His acting suffers as well in the struggle to over-compensate.  My other gripe with the film is the Original Song "Suddenly" which lacks the (abundant) inspiration so obvious in the original libretto.  It was obviously thrown in just to garner one more Oscar nomination (which it did) and does nothing to enhance the already lengthy production.
     I'm sure by now it sounds like I didn't like Les Miserables and this could not be further from the truth.  There is a lot of really good stuff going on.  My personal affection for the source material just makes me very tough to satisfy completely.  However, I would recommend the movie for exposure to the story and music alone.  I have seen the film criticized for concentrating too much on the love story as if were some typical musical comedy but this could not be further from the truth.  Les Miserables is no simple happy-go-lucky boy meets girl tale.  Instead, it is a story about love can make the world a better place even in the most seemingly impossible situations:  love of freedom, the love of a parent for a child, love of humanity, the love of God, and...yes...romantic love.  I have also read a review by a writer who became frustrated with the endlessly repeating musical motifs.  To this reviewer I say, Les Mis is not really a musical, it's an operetta.  Such motifs are a basic component of the particular genre, carefully placed to subtly tie events, characters, and emotions together over the course of the show.  There are still more distinctive unique songs of memorable quality (that are sampled often, okay) than in any two Rodgers and Hammerstein "masterpieces" put together.
     Technically, the film is very strong in most areas.  I would say that some of the editorial choices (from Chris Dickens & Melanie Oliver) were a bit too obvious in their attempt to elicit emotion, creating the opposite effect in the active viewer.  This is easily the most ambitious project that cinematographer Danny Cohen has ever taken on and some of the work is absolutely breathtaking, but at other times the obsessive use of extreme close ups undercuts the emotion by overstating.  The Oscar winning Sound Mixing team of Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson & Simon Hayes were fully deserving of all accolades that they received. Not only was the work that they did absolutely groundbreaking, but the lack of lip synching actually accomplished exactly what it set out to do. Les Miserables sports an organic melding of sight and sound that many of the movie musicals commonly considered to be the greats of the genre fall well short of.  Lisa Westcott and Julie Dartnell also won an Oscar in the Make-Up and Hairstyling category.  While their work is impressive, I can't even really say that I agreed with the nomination. However, given the fact that NONE of the films that should have been in the mix (Cloud Atlas, anyone?) were even on the ballot, I can't begrudge this one the win.  The costumes, sets and props were all magnificent, earning Paco Delgado, Eve Stewart & Anna Lynch-Robinson well deserved recognition from the Academy.
     Still, what will captivate you most about the film version are the performances.  Hugh Jackman gives the best performance of his career so far, revealing talents and layers that took this reviewer completely by surprise.  We already knew he had training as a singer, but we had no idea his voice could penetrate the very soul the way that he does here.  Rarely can such extremes of emotion play so genuinely scene by scene and shot by shot but Mr. Jackman goes all in for every heart wrenching beat and works it out every time in what is truly one of the best leading performances of 2012.
     I am completely perplexed at all the animosity that has been launched like a guided missile at Anne Hathaway in direct proportion to her (admittedly endless and repetitive) success through the 2012 awards cycle.  What is it that people begrudge her?  Her talent? That would be understandable, if petty.    She brings the goods in this movie.  I had my doubts knowing how little of the story her character was actually in, but as Fantine she is a force of nature.
     I was actually a little let down by the way that the Thenardiers were handled and I had been soooo excited when I heard that Sacha Baron Coen and Helena Bonham Carter were going to be playing them.  Somehow their performances wound up a little more subdued than I expected, which is odd considering that they both specialize in going WAY over the top.  Director Tom Hooper does have a tendency to homogenize things a bit too much, so maybe his influence had something to do with it.  They both gave GOOD performances, don't get me wrong, but the scoundrel and his wife are the only comedy relief in a sea of misery, and both of these performers are capable of being wildly humorous and outrageous.
     Conversely, I was fairly ambivalent about Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne as adult Cossette and Marius before I saw the film.  I thought Ms. Seyfried was brilliant in the HBO series Big Love, but her film career has been built mostly on roles that didn't really allow her to demonstrate the depth of her capabilities.  The only thing I could remember HIM from off the top of my head was My Week With Marilyn, in which he was stifled by a fairly tepid script and production.  Plus, I have always found the young lovers to be the least interesting characters in the script (and let's face it "A Heart Full of Love" IS the weakest song in the original libretto).  I don't know how, but these two young actors blew Broadway out of the water.  Seyfried finally lives up to the promise of her beginnings and Redmayne's rendition of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was heart wrenching in both its beauty and sadness.
     Eponine has always been my favorite character in the show and West End actress Samantha Barks had already played her countless times when she was approached about the role that would, in the end, also serve as her film debut.  It is easy to see why she was snatched up for the movie adaptation.  She is lovely, pitiful, miserable and desperate all at the same time.  Unlike many stage actors who foray into film, she uses no overblown facial expressions or exaggerated gestures.  Her performance is organically touching.  Hopefully, this will not be her last appearance on the big screen.
     If I'm being totally honest, I spent most of 2012 predicting awards glory for and overall brilliance from Les Miserable. While it did score a host of nominations, it didn't exactly work out like I predicted.  I so desperately wanted to give this film a big five out of five star rating, but it was good not great overall with moments that were much better and moments that were much worse.  Still, I would definitely recommend checking it out, especially if you have never been exposed to the wonderful music before.  Oh, and bring a tissue.  Bring two...4 out of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  Cloudy Connections (Cloud Atlas review)

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