Saturday, January 5, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

Les Miserables is the film version of the wildly successful stage musical. The musical in turn is based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo. The story is about the redemption of Jean Valjean, a man who spends years doing hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread in the time of the French Revolution. Valjean escapes from prison and makes a new life for himself under an alias, but he is doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert. Javert vows to see Valjean returned to prison. While Valjean is hiding under his assumed name, he makes a promise to a dying woman named Fantine that he will care for her daughter Cosette. Cosette grows into a beautiful, loving young woman. When Valjean tries to help Cosette and Marius, the revolutionary she loves,  escape from harm during the Revolution, Valjean and Javert have a final confrontation.

All this makes for a complicated and dark story for a musical. I have never seen a stage production of Les Miserables, but I was familiar with the general plot . The music deserves all of the acclaim that is has received all these years. Virtually all dialogue in the movie is in song, which makes Les Miserables an opera, as I see it. That's not a bad thing; it just is what it is.

Fortunately, the musical has been adapted into a fine feature film. The movie has the look of an epic, which it should. All production values are of the highest quality. Director Tom Hooper -- an Oscar winner for The King's Speech -- really did an excellent job in bringing this mammoth production to the big screen. I applaud Hooper's gutsy decision to have the actors sing their roles as they performed. There is minimal post-production voice dubbing. It was an effective method of filming this musical, and it has almost never been done in this manner for movie musicals.

Hooper also cast his film wisely. Movie stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe respectively portray Valjean and Javert. Jackman is a gifted singer, and his performance as Valjean is strong and heartfelt. Crowe's vocal abilities are not as accomplished -- he is an ordinary singer -- but he delivers a strong performance without embarrassing himself musically. Anne Hathaway as Fantine is the movie's glorious highlight.  Most of her performance is singing the song "I Dreamed a Dream",  but she is phenomenal. Amanda Seyfried is a fine Cosette, and Eddie Redmayne scores as Marius, the sensitive revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette. I need to rethink my active dislike for actor Sacha Baron Cohen after his funny performance here as con artist/innkeeper Thenardier and his appearance in Hugo, my favorite film of 2011 -- well, the guy can't be all bad! Helena Bonham Carter delightfully plays Mme. Thenardier; her role here reminded me of her work in Sweeney Todd. Samantha Barks made a wonderful film debut with her role of the goodhearted Eponine, as did Isabelle Allen in her brief role as Young Cosette. All of the young men who played Marius's fellow revolutionaries were excellent as well -- and I liked their songs the most, after "I Dreamed a Dream".

The film's flaw which distracted me to the point of having to knock this movie down a notch was Hooper's incessant use of close-ups. That's a trap that a lot of musicals fall into, especially when dancing is not needed. The close-ups here worked OK for the solos, but so many of the songs involved duets or chorus singing that the moving from one actor's face to the next to the next and back again was annoying. I almost hated to bring it up since every other aspect of this gargantuan production was so magnificent, but there you have it

Les Miserables was every bit as good as I hoped it would be. It is a richly rewarding movie experience and a one-of-a-kind film. Its closest predecessor seems to be the movie version of the stage musical production of The Phantom of the Opera a few years ago. You know it's a good movie when you emerge from the theater wanting to read the book. Grade: A-.

I watched this film at the Pullman Square Marquee Cinemas on December 26, 2012.

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