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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Les Miserables


Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables, is such a tome the mob could use copies to weigh down missing persons.  The musical adaptation premiered on London’s West End in 1985, and it's about as grand and decorous a production as any you’re likely to witness.  It’s not surprising that this film version strives to be as heavy as the book and as bombastic as its musical-theater successor, though I do wish the final product weren’t as lumpy and misguided as director Tom Hooper’s movie.  It aspires nothing less than to revolutionize the musical genre by transplanting the beloved show to the big-screen completely intact, yet it manages only to reiterate the infeasibility of such an endeavor.  True, the cast is admirably, guiltlessly enthusiastic, wearing their emotions on their sleeves as they offer impassioned renditions of Broadway standards.  The music is beautifully composed by Claude-Michel Schonberg and it thunders from the speakers with the fury of rebellion.  On the whole, however, the movie is majorly disappointing—big not epic, raw not real, and swoony but not genuinely romantic.

Set in France in the early 19th century—a post-Revolution era of supplanted Napoleonic sovereigns—the plot transpires, as in the book and musical, over the course of several decades charting the journey of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an everyday Frenchman who’s sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  Once paroled, Valjean, under the alias Monsieur Madeleine, prospers in business, running a burgeoning textile factory, and politics, elected mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, a small French village.  He adopts an impoverished orphan named Cosette (played young by Isabelle Allen and older by Amanda Seyfried) once her mother, a prostitute and ostracized laborer named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), dies of disease.  All the while, Valjean remains under the wary eye of diligent officer Javert (Russell Crowe), his stalwart prison overseer.  Of all the players, Jackman’s derelict-come-plutocrat is the most finely shaped.  Valjean goes from godless vagabond to charitable Christian, while his struggle for spiritual absolution mirrors the French proletariat’s fight for social equality.  Much has been made of Hathaway’s brief turn as the doomed Fantine, and while I’ll admit her snotty, choky, drippy take on the lovely “I Dreamed A Dream” was definitely emotionally bare, I can’t say I was that moved by her blubbery caterwauling.  Crowe, stately and statuesque, certainly looks the part of a stiff government stooge, if only his voice were more dynamic and emotive.

Evidently, Hooper’s grand strategy here is to recreate the theater experience for the multiplex: he’s employed the “groundbreaking” technique of recording the songs on-set as opposed to in post-production; the characters are given attentive arias; and Hooper allows his actors to croon with unchecked spontaneity and aggressive emotionality, sobbing and howling through their vocals if they desire.  The effect, I'm sorry to say, isn’t exactly premier singing or acting.  Even if live theater could be simulated in another medium, the inherent problem with Hooper’s approach is that it makes for poor faux-theater and even poorer cinema.  It's too emphatically overdramatized to achieve the delicate nuance the camera requires.   The director punches in for extreme close-ups on solos like “Stars”, “On My Own”, and “Bring Him Home”, and doesn’t cut.  Theoretically, the actors are given the unbroken longevity of stage and the intimacy of film, in an unwise attempt to prompt more liberated, revealing portrayals.  Since Hooper has no instinct for when to pull back or push in, when to showcase music or performance, and the actors have no breathing room in such stuffy compositions, the unforeseen result is suffocating.

Les Miz teeters precariously on an identity barricade and indecisively wallows while the source’s powerful storytelling dissipates in the Parisian air.  The novel is separated into several parts focusing on different characters and how they intertwine.  The musical is more bisected (musicals usually are) and the second part is years later, constituting the conspiracy and revolt led by heartthrob Marius (Eddie Redmayne), pint-sized Gavroche, and their adolescent cohorts.  Hooper’s adaptation doesn’t seamlessly flow from one segment to the other, as we’re airlifted from Valjean’s clandestine life of piety and repentance and dropped into a callow love triangle between Marius, Cosette, and third-wheel Eponine (Samantha Barks).  Faithful to the musical’s operatic quiddity, all the dialogue is sung, which is great for Broadway, but movies require a certain dramatic depth and complexity that the director’s conceit of hybrid singing/acting can’t flesh-out into anything more than meager drama.  It fails to shed light on the characters’ psychology because the songs feel less like confessions than expositional monologues. 

There’s ample sentiment oozing off the screen, but it’s overwrought, the foul fruit of labor as opposed to an extension of the story’s tragedy and transcendence or the music’s legendary elegance.  Besides Jackman’s Valjean, the ensemble’s comprised of one-note troubadours.  Javert is one of literature’s greatest symbols of futile obsession, but Crowe can’t communicate his wasted existence, how the lawman’s pointless pursuit of Valjean is really an isolate’s tragic myopia, akin to Eponine’s unrequited desire for Marius.  Fantine’s despondency couldn’t be clearer from Hathaway’s shivering waif, but where prey is the mother’s undying love?  And ingénue Cosette is possibly the most boring character in the history of musical theater, a prop to be shuffled amongst the cast.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter play the unscrupulous innkeepers who enslave Cosette as a girl.  Their clowning is pure comic relief, which works on stage, but here feels curiously discordant with Hooper’s bludgeoning gravitas, as incongruous as the bold yet foundering experiment in movie/play crossover.  The director—whose last film, The King Speech, reached undeserved heights of acclaim in 2010—doesn’t illuminate the finer aspects of each medium; he synthesizes their unresolved differences into a lachrymose lump of turgid melodrama.  I’ve concluded that Les Miserables is a folly, an ill-conceived composite of two drastically, eternally contrasting forms.

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