Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: "Les Misérables" by Dan Foutch

Release: 2012
Director: Tom Hooper
Screenplay: William Nicholson
Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer
Actors: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 157 minutes

To say that this movie is a difficult one to review would be an understatement. There is no truly good way to begin. Let me start by saying that I have loved Les Miserables since I saw it on stage. Unlike some of the reviews I have seen, I saw it fifteen years ago. Given that fact I knew what it was about and what to expect, I was very much looking forward to seeing this film. I never saw it on Broadway or done by the original cast, but the experience of seeing it live is still lingers in my mind. Let that be a testament to the power of the story.

On the surface it is the story of Jean Valjean, (Hugh Jackman) a convict imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s son. The opening scene is of him being paroled under the supervision and a stern warning from policeman/warden Javert (Russell Crowe). After Valjean breaks parole, Javert hunts him for the remainder of the film.

But that is the very tip of the iceberg. The story is about love. Not a love story, just love. It’s about the sacrifice, pain, sorrow, anguish, and glory that call all be found in the simple four-letter word. Valjean ends up taking refuge in a church and in an act of desperation, steals the silver dinnerware in order to survive, he is caught and brought back to face the priest. The priest claims that he gave Valjean the silver and insists that he take more. This creates a sense of charity and obligation that Valjean is completely unprepared for. Several years later he has become a successful businessman and respected member of a community. When Javert appears, Valjean is distracted from the fact that one of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is unjustly fired. Fantine has a daughter to care for and as a result, ends up at the very bottom of society in order to try to provide for her.

Valjean finds her dying and swears to care for her daughter Cosette as if she were his own. As the story progresses we see Javert doggedly searching for Valjean in an attempt to exact justice. In a world of grays, Javert can only see black and white and has difficulty seeing that acts of charity can redeem a person from previous crimes. Ultimately Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Valjean end up in Paris, with Javert still hunting for Valjean. Meanwhile, Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young upstart intent on starting a revolution to overthrow the tyrannical monarchy and remove the boot from the common man’s neck. There is much, much more to the story obviously, but it is better to watch and see for yourself.

The movie was, in one word, powerful. Given that the songs weren't prerecorded and then lip-synced added to this greatly. It allowed the actors to let loose with all of the passion and expression they had. The raw emotion seen on their faces alone was enough to draw you in to the story. It blended the fact that it was both a movie and a musical perfectly. Many people would argue that it detracts from the music, that if it were true to the musical, every line would be perfectly sung. The fact is there were a few notes in some of the songs that were just a tad off, the pitch slightly wrong. Not enough to be discordant but it was clearly a result of this unorthodox approach. I personally felt that it only added to the experience.

The acting/singing was amazing. This was a fantastic cast filled with passion and really took their roles to heart. Jackman once again displays his amazing range of acting skills, throw in the fact that he can sing and do it well only increases my opinion of him. The raw emotion you can see in his eyes as he struggles with guilt and compassion could tell the tale on their own. Hathaway gives a stellar performance as always. If you've watched the trailers you have seen at least part of her big musical number, one of the biggest of the film in fact. And she nails it. The song is moving at it is but to see the naked hopelessness and sorrow on her face makes it all the more moving. Seyfried is a known commodity when it comes to music, at least if you’re familiar with her at all. Her role of Cosette was perfect. Cosette has lived a life of isolation and obscurity due to the nature of Valjean’s history (of which she knows nothing about). As such she is vulnerable and naïve. Seyfried was the perfect choice, her naturally innocent face is well suited to the role. She portrays the beauty and fragility of a caged bird with a voice to match. She even sounds the part, her voice almost trilling like a little bird. By and large the cast was amazing and performed their roles better than I had anticipated - and I already had very high expectations. The only performance that I felt was lackluster was Crowe’s. Granted, the part of Javert is a difficult role as he is the antagonist and as such you are made to dislike him. What disappointed me the most was the presentation of his role. It almost felt like he was reading from a script and just singing it. It was unconvincing in its sincerity. His inflection was almost flat and emotionless and I was very disappointed with it. To be perfectly honest, part of me groaned every time he was on screen because I knew it would break the stride of the movie. The actor I was most surprised with, and pleasantly so, was Sacha Baron Cohen. I’m not going to lie, I was very, very skeptical and even nervous about him being in such a masterful drama. He surprised me however, with his role as Thenardier, a thieving innkeeper and opportunist who is “caring for” Cosette before Valjean takes her into his care. That particular music number is the only one designed solely for humor and he does an amazing job and has earned my grudging respect.

Director Tom Hooper took an unconventional approach to one of the most famous musicals of all time. But given his last film, "The King's Speech", he had the street cred to do it. Again, from other reviews I have read, one of the biggest complaints was that there were too many close-ups on the characters during the major numbers. I call BS. I feel that it only added to the awe inspiring power of the song. The songs and singers didn't need soaring backgrounds and amazing sets to make them epic. It was about the emotion evoked, not what was going on around the character. It forces you to focus on the song and the heart poured into them. It was like watching a group of people baring their souls in front of the camera and I applaud his decision.

There were times when it felt like the movie dragged a little but I think it was almost necessary. You can’t truly appreciate a big scene when every song is a showstopper. Not every part of a movie can be the big part, otherwise you become jaded. On the other hand, even though the film was just shy of three hours long, I was left craving more. More time to really know the characters, more time to see them interact, more time to feel the pain and joy that these people endure.

I tried very hard to make an impartial review but decided that I simply couldn't  I loved this film; it was what I was looking for and was hands down the best film adaptation of a musical I have ever seen. If you love musicals or are just curious, I absolutely recommend it. If you’re on the fence or aren't sure you’re going to like it, go see it anyways. If nothing else, it’s an entertaining experience and worth the money to see it in the theater. It simply will not be the same at home and the score will definitely suffer from not having surround sound. My only word of caution is to go in with an open mind and a few tissues because I’m not sure there was a dry eye in the house by the end. And if it sways your opinion at all, I don’t think I've ever been to a movie where when the credits rolled, the entire theater was clapping as if they were at a musical.