Thursday, January 3, 2013

Happy New Year...Miserable People! (Don't worry, it's a film review)

 It's 2013, and it's time for a new post, which coincides with my goal of writing more frequently this year. I say "goal" because a goal is something that is pursued with a particular end in mind, as opposed to a "resolution," which is something that is planned and then quickly ignored or forgotten. (Consider that our national budget is based on "resolutions," and I rest my case.) I find it fascinating that a whole lot of people seem to be really glad 2012 is over, and that the optimism about 2013 is largely based in the philosophical belief that "it has to be better." So I'l begin by talking about miserable people...that is, the new film Les Miserables.

 I have not read the novel by Victor Hugo. If it's anything like the novel of his that I have read, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it is very wordy and extensive, containing many passages that do not necessarily advance the plot in any meaningful way. But I have seen the stage production twice in addition to listening to various recordings of the music. (When I was in Afghanistan, some good friends sent me a copy of the CD of the 25th Anniversary Concert, which is excellent.) I have heard that some minor adjustments that were made by the filmmakers bring the plot a bit more in line with what happens in the novel, though I cannot confirm this. For the most part, the film adheres fairly closely to the stage production with music by Claude-Michel Shonberg and lyrics adapted by Herbert Kretzmer from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's French version. 

 The film is directed by Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for directing The King's Speech, which I thoroughly enjoyed. As you may know, for this film he adopted the unorthodox approach of having the actors sing live for each take, instead of the typical film musical technique of pre-recording the lyrics in a studio. I believe that this may become the standard practice in the future, especially given the availability of small earpieces that made it possible for the actors to sing with an accompanist on-set. (The accompanists were, of course, replaced with a full orchestra in post-production.) The emotional immediacy of the performances comes through quite clearly on-screen, and the physical effort and response of singing affects the way the performances happen. This is a benefit to this musical, which has almost no significant spoken dialogue. This also means that in many scenes that actors are singing to each other, on the set, rather than in a sterile studio environment. This means that, sometimes, vocal imperfections are left in but with a richer dramatic performance as the result. 

 The casting is, mostly, superb. Hugh Jackman, most famous as Wolverine in the X-Men films, uses his stage training to good effect as the hero Jean Valjean. Jackman's performance is memorable and convincing, and his voice is in good shape for the role. (I would have preferred a bit more subtlety in his interpretation of "Bring Him Home," but he makes the song his own. His early soliloquy upon being shown mercy by the bishop is exceptional.) Expect Jackman to be nominated for all the major acting awards this year, and he just may win some of them.Valjean's antagonist, Inspector Javert, who spends years pursuing Valjean as a parole violator, is portrayed by Russell Crowe. Crowe is a great actor, far more than he is a singer. As a friend of mine pointed out, his biggest problem is that there are so many recordings of great singers playing the role. He can hit all the notes, but his voice is not particularly special. Still, he is too good a performer not to handle the role well, and his rendition of "Stars" (one of my favorite songs in the musical) is a worthy interpretation. Samantha Barks, the teenage Eponine, was a great choice and her rain-soaked "On My Own" is one of the best scenes in the movie. She might be an Oscar contender were it not for...well, I'll get to that in a bit. Barks was a part of the 25th Anniversary recording in the same role. The young lovers-at-first sight, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), are adequate. Part of the problem is that their relationship is given so little time to develop within the story that it simply is hard to feel much emotion for them, especially given the other events which develop much more organically. Whether this is true of the book I can't say, but it is a story problem left over from the stage musical. While naive teenage love is a staple of melodrama and it works well for the plot of Romeo and Juliet, this is one aspect of the story that simply is not convincing to me. Seyfried's voice seems a bit thin at times, though she is absolutely radiant to look at and it's understandable why Marius is so taken with her. Redmayne gives a tremendous performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," so it's a shame the story doesn't give him more opportunities. Sacha Baron Cohen, who gave a surprisingly good turn as the station inspector in last year's Hugo, was a fine choice to play dastardly con man/comic relief Thenardier, and Helena Bonham Carter (an actress who is good in everything she does) keeps the pace as his equally-corrupt Madame. It seemed like their final piece, "Beggars at the Feast," was cut a bit short to my disappointment, but they play their roles to the hilt. Isabelle Allen is perfectly cast as the young Cosette; she not only looks like a young version of Seyfried but is instantly sympathetic as the downtrodden child. As a nice addition to the cast, the Bishop (in some ways, the most important character in the story) is played by Colm Wilkinson, who played Valjean in the first London production. I haven't even mentioned Aaron Tveit's strong performance as the young revolutionary Enjolras. His attempt to overthrow the status quo is clearly foolhardy, but there is no doubt at all why his followers go along with him. 

 Of course, the major buzz for the film started when the first trailer showed us Anne Hathaway as Fantine singing "I Dreamed A Dream." In the past few years the song became the unofficial anthem for  Susan Boyle, and that may have played a part in the decision to showcase the song in pre-release materials. The buzz is justified: Hathaway's performance is amazing. Her rendition of the song, performed live in one unbroken take, is shattering. The Academy should go ahead and engrave her name on the Supporting Actress Oscar--she really is that good. (As a side note, I thought she did a fine job in The Dark Knight Rises as well.) 

 As a caveat, if you don't enjoy musicals, you probably won't enjoy this one, especially given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus running time. (Plus all the advertisements they show beforehand...I would have been happy if they had dropped all the ads except for the trailer for Star Trek Into Darkness.) This is not a perfect film, but it is a very good one. The music is great and there is some powerful acting. (I suspect the film's investors bought stock in Kleenex.) The use of realistic settings opens up many of the dramatic possibilities, and often brings the story to life in a way that the stage simply cannot duplicate. While the story is about injustice and misfortune, it is not about being defeated by injustice and misfortune. It is about having the faith to overcome life's trials (if you want to read more about the ideas behind the story, there is a great article here). If you need some inspiration and want to hear some great music, this is a film I highly recommend.

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