LES MISERABLES (2013)
(directed by Toby Hooper)
****+ (out of 5)
> Yeah baby! That’s what I’m talking about! How many bad decisions might have easily led this project badly awry? Let me count the ways! The good news: None of them did! This long-awaited film treat-ment of the Broadway smash is as good as they say, as good as the rousing stage play, as good as a modern musical has any business being!
Not since CABARET has a screen adaptation made such a contribution to the Hollywood musical- the first by looking forward to redefine the genre, LES MIS by looking back to the musical’s roots: opera.
> Certainly, I am anything but unbiased on the material: I consider Les Miserables the best musical ever penned, period. Considering this, how could the film ever live up to the potential? A tall order indeed, and an impossibly high standard that this film almost achieves- or close enough! After being profoundly affected by the story of persecution and spiritual redemption when exposed to an abbreviated version in fifth grade, I was subsequently moved to read all 365 chapters of the unabridged version of the great, sprawling Victor Hugo novel. As I mention in my review of the 1952 version, this powerful story of a wronged man’s search for justice is such resonant literature that it inspired six previous films. In the years that followed, I managed to see every previous cinematic incarnation that preceded this operatic treatment, (except the silent version “Sons of the Barricade” and the animated version that I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to endure anyway). Now, in 2012, lauded director Toby Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH) finally brings us this seventh incarnation- 27 years after its onstage debut- another version that is destined to be a classic- featuring an amazing turn by Aussie performer Hugh Jackman in the coveted central role, just one of many great performances in this rich feast.
. Though I was quite happy about the casting of Hugh Jackman, Sasha Baron Cohen and Anne Hathaway, I was deeply skeptical of the decision to cast Helana Bonham Carter as Madame Thenardier and Russell Crowe as Javert. After her disastrous turn in the similarly challenging musical SWEENY TODD, I couldn’t imagine HBC was up to it. And though Russell Crowe is a top notch actor, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was he really capable of the vocal range needed to do Javert justice in this musical. (In a word: no- he was not.) But I’m happy to eat my words on these misgivings. Toby Hooper learned from Tim Burton’s mistake, and did not ask HBC to sing at all. (I imagine he had the same talk with Helana that my director had with me, when I was cast in “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”: “Did you see Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY?”) HBC pretty much talked the whole thing, and though the musicality suffered, being the fine actress she is, she managed to pull if off. The same goes for Russell Crowe. Though I would have preferred a better singer in the role, he did grow into the part, becoming quite a formidable figure by his final fateful scene. I had forgotten that Mr. Jackman’s fellow Aussie did have vocal experience with his rough and tumble grunge band ‘40 Odd Feet of Grunt’, though these are sketchy credentials indeed. While clearly handicapped with the weakest singing voice of the lot, this fine, if crusty actor was able to communicate the inner conflict that drives Javert to duty and ultimately, self-destruction. Toby Hooper helped, providing some very telling detail: creating connecting scenes from whole cloth that went a long way toward making a sometimes nearly incoherent plot flow logically. He thoughtfully provided Javert with a quiet moment sorrowfully surveying the dead on both sides after the fall of the barricades. Taking a medal off his chest to pin on poor fallen child soldier Gavroche, revealing an unexpected tenderness that hinted at his fatal act of mercy to come. As I feared, he couldn’t come close to doing justice to the thrilling song “Stars” vocally, but it is hugely to his credit, that even surrounded by beautiful voices that make him sound amateur by comparison, Mr. Crowe managed to hold his own.
. In the central role of the good man turned bad, then good again, Hugh Jackman shone, giving a raw, emotionally intense performance that absolutely will not be forgotten at Oscar time. He will be nominated and he will win. (Not my choice, but I am not the decider. If I were the only voter, Jaoquin Phoenix would walk away with the statuette for his reinvention of modern film acting in THE MASTER.) In the early scenes as the tormented convict, Mr. Jackman is riveting as a broken man with sinew of steel. Gaunt, red-eyed, trembling with suppressed rage, he is a haunting figure indeed. His naked soul-searching in “What Have I Done?” and “Who Am I?” was absolutely riveting. Never before has an actor playing Valjean so clearly communicated the depth of his horror at having fallen so far despite being a deeply moral man. He makes our hero’s heart-wrenching inner transformation clear and vital and deeply, desperately moving. But Mr. Jackman’s portrayal of Valjean, once reinvented as lord mayor, seemed too bland by half- perhaps a fault of the writing. A good man struggling to do good in a hostile world is simply far less interesting than a bad man trying to find his way back to the goodness in him. And for a man with such an amazing voice, Jackman sure seemed to pull his punches from time to time, often choosing accessible emotion over vocal technique. Many of the actors do this, and while it may be the right choice dramatically, it does leave those of us who love this score wishing for better singers behind the emotion. I can’t see previous Les Miserables lovers being excited about this cast album.
. For her part, Anne Hathaway will be the actress to beat in the Supporting category this year, giving the best performance of her career, and making it impossible to think of any other actress in the tragic role of Fantine. (I see her in a beautiful evening gown, smiling for the cameras as he holds her Oscar aloft for all to admire.) If this happens, it will be because she earned it with one of the most heartbreaking performances in modern cinema.
. It was a sweet, sentimental idea to cast the original Broadway Valjean as the Bishop. Colm Wilkinson is a welcome face here, but what happened to his amazing singing chops? Perhaps his voice has faded with the years, but its former glory was not on display here, wasting one of the most beautiful musical passages of the play. An understandable sentimental choice perhaps, but not the right one, I think. I was left disappointed by his tepid performance that was a vague shadow of the power he displayed as Valjean on stage.
. Sasha Baron Cohen was fun as one would expect, mugging his way through the plumb role of the oily, obsequious cad Thenardier, but his antics in concert with HBC, seemed cardboard and too modern for the context. Though these two fine comic actors worked well as a team, and had plenty of sly comic business to keep them busy, “Master of the House” did not come close to being the show-stopper it often is on the stage.
. The director’s decision to reinvent the way musicals are filmed, by using real-time “live” vocal performances paid off in spades. It was a major gamble, that relied heavily on his actor’s abilities to make the magic synergy of song and performance happen, but it pays off bigtime- unquestionably enhancing the intimacy and subtlety of the performances to such a degree that it doesn’t seem possible filmmakers will ever go back to the old canned way of recording musicals by using clean studio overdubs.
. While Amanda Seyfried as grown up Cosette is pleasant to listen to and pretty to look at, she really doesn’t have much to do here. In fact, the courtship of the young lovers is easily the weakest link in the storytelling. Seeing each other from afar: ZING! their hormones swear to them it’s love-at-first-sight. They believe them. Everybody does. Star-crosses lovers, thwarted, but only temporarily. This is no Romeo and Juliet. They are left alive among the carnage, engulfed in each other’s embrace, mourning the past but facing the future optimistically. A rather pedestrian love story, actually, that depends entirely on the charm of the players. Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne as Cosette’s lover Marius, is dynamite: the best Marius yet, among all seven films. The actor has a stunning voice and undeniable screen charisma that made him a pleasure to watch, or just close your eyes and listen to. I was glad when the plotline rolled around to the doomed citizen uprising, as we finally got to hear a whole chorus of beautiful voices, unencumbered by the need to emote the parts rather than sing them with full-throated conviction- and this cadre of rash student rebels sounded wonderful. Their “Red and Black” contained more coherent storytelling than any I’ve seen before- again, nuance was nurtured as fine brush strokes inside a sweeping epic.
. The lesser characters provide their share of memorable moments. Samantha Barks is the best Eponine I’ve seen- of nine! She gives a powerful, emotionally-charged performance as the tragically lovelorn Eponine. Soulful stuff. The young actor playing nimble street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) had a resonant moment with his introduction, faring far better than other kid actors have done in this role. His musical moment was more clearly articulated than I’ve ever seen, deftly illuminating the social dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots of the age, with crystalline clarity. (One touring production I saw in San Francisco actually cut this song, unable to find a single kid actor who was up to it.) As presented here, we see why Gavroche matters: his street-level view of the roiling societal conflict. All around, Mr. Hooper made deft decisions that contributed to the clarity and emotional truthfulness of the text. He was clearly the right man for the job. (Expect another Best Director nomination for last year’s winner.)
. The production values here are spectacular, a standard that is readily apparent from the first unforgettable set piece in the dockyards, featuring an army of convict slaves manually hauling a giant ship into port while lashed by stormy seas. The sets, costumes, color, the glories and squalor of Paris are uniformly stunning. I was pleased to see shadows of several small subplots from the sprawling book, hinted at here, just background, but not explored in previous film versions. And I was personally delighted to see the giant hollow elephant Gavroche and his minions squatted in. It seemed a pointless digression at the time I read it, but the image stuck in my head like a peanut butter sandwich to the palate. It was an aha-moment, to see it depicted (wondrously!) in two scenes. This is big, BIG Hollywood filmmaking in every sense of the word, which seems quite appropriate for this grandiose material. Sometimes, to look backwards is to look forward.
. For all my minor quibbles, this LES MISERABLES is a triumph. As with musicals of the golden age, old curmudgeons like me can actually say they left the theatre humming the memorable tunes. Number 1 at the box office in its opening week, it may come in number one on Oscar day, taking home more awards than any other film of the year. We’ll have to just wait and see…
> But don’t wait to see the film! Join the crowds to experience one of the biggest, grandest musicals ever committed to film.
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