Mark Reviews Movies

Les Misérables


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tom Hooper

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements)

Running Time: 2:37

Release Date: 12/25/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 23, 2012

Although it would be possible to transfer the specifics of the stage version of Les Misérables for the screen, it would be impossible to recreate the experience on screen—the minimalist spectacle of the production is just ordinary when approached in a representational way. As such, director Tom Hooper does perhaps the only thing one could do when approaching a straightforward interpretation of the musical, and that is to focus almost exclusively on the performances within it. Apart from the opening scene, which incorporates special effects to help create a massive dry dock that serves as a prison (the prisoners hauling a ship into it with lines as thick as tree trunks), and a few brief establishing shots, which include dramatic rises and falls of the camera through space and time as each new stage of the story begins, Les Misérables keeps us in close—sometimes very close—proximity to the actors.

The most lasting impression the film leaves is of faces—their dejected, pained, and, yes, miserable visages almost always in frame. It runs counter to what we would expect considering the source material (itself, of course, based on the novel by Victor Hugo) and the story's sweeping historical background, including the incorporation of political unrest in France.

The shift and Hooper's technique for it take some adjusting on our part, as song—only infrequently interrupted by a spoken line of dialogue or two here and there—does not soar in big voices and sustained notes but remains earthy—modest and sometimes messy. Instead of pre-recording the actors' singing, Hooper has captured their vocal performances in the moment. The rhythm of the lyrics sometimes misses a beat; the actors' voices crack as a note just escapes their grasps.

The film is really an experiment in how far a movie musical can get at something approaching dramatic realism despite the artifice inherent in the form. It helps that the singing is nearly a constant, bypassing the jolt that inevitably comes with the dynamic of alternating talking-singing, and that the impeccable production design creates a believable world of squalor in which the story unfolds. Like so many experiments, though, we watch this with a feeling of distance from the material. The emotional impact of the stage show's melodrama occasionally penetrates the film's method, but it's easier to admire and appreciate than to be affected by it.

The story follows 17 years of the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned for almost two decades for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family and an escape attempt. At the start in 1815, Javert (Russell Crowe), a prison guard and later the police inspector who spends the rest of his life in pursuit of Valjean, gives Valjean his parole papers, which mark him as a dangerous man. Without any means of survival, he steals some silverware from the home a local bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who has offered him food and lodgings; when the police return with Valjean under suspicion of the robbery, the bishop goes along with Valjean's lie that he gave him the silver.

Torn between his previously established distrust in humanity and the bishop's kindness, Valjean tries to determine the future course of his life, and it's here we get must quickly become accustomed to Hooper's handling of the material's solo songs. To distinguish the character-defining songs (always of inner turmoil) from the more matter-of-fact and plot-driving singing-as-dialogue, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen shoot the characters' solos in long close-ups (most done in a one-take or with only a short cutaway in the middle or a complete break just at the final word)—every tiny movement magnified and expanded on the screen.

The performances, in general, hold up on the intense scrutiny of the camera, and it's because the actors treat them as soliloquies instead of showstoppers. Jackman, whose Valjean is tortured by the idea of identity, is strong, and Crowe, who half of the time sounds as if he's pushing too hard, gradually settles into the role of the police officer driven by a rigid  following of the law, which he compares to the constancy of the stars as he walks on a literal edge.

After starting his new life, Valjean's story takes a break to follow Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a wilting flower of a shop worker who finds herself on the streets and doing anything for money. Hathaway's short but blistering performance is the highlight of the film, especially when she sings of a dream she once dreamed as she suffers a nervous breakdown—a truly stunning scene that justifies Hooper's approach. It's not until much later in the story, when another young woman named Éponine (Samantha Barks, by far the best singer in the cast) sings of her own vision of fulfilling what is in reality an unrequited love, that the film reaches the emotional peak of the scenes with Fantine (A montage of preparation at the midway point is rousing, though).

The rest of the story, which follows Valjean caring for Fantine's daughter Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman) as he tries to avoid Javert's grasp and she falls in love with a young revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), feels too ordinary in the context of Hooper's presentation. While the stage production's pageantry more than compensates for the narrative's snags (along with a visit to a pair of corrupt innkeepers played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, which now just feels out of place), Les Misérables only highlights them. This is an underwhelming adaptation, but the film is executed with a unique, admirable approach and, ultimately, is a solid—with reservations—arrangement.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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