Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson (screenplay), Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil & Herbert Kretzmer (book and lyrics), based on a novel by Victor Hugo
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
(157 minutes, Color)

By the time that Les Misérables came out in theaters, I'd known the musical upon which it's based for a good decade.  I had almost all the lyrics to the mementous songs memorized, and had seen the Broadway touring production of the musical itself.  I'm an unabashed fan of Schönberg and Boublil's show, and have always been appreciative of how faithful it is to Hugo's source novel (unlike other adaptations that have been made through the years).  Understandably, I had very high expectations for the film adaptation of Les Mis.  When I saw the film, however, I was floored.  It was completely unlike anything I foresaw.  In my highest hopes, I think I only ever expected a straight stage-to-screen translation of Les Mis, much like the blandly satisfying screen versions of musicals like The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and Dreangirls.  Those films largely satisfied their core audience: fans of the stage shows, but alienated other viewers who were turned off by the movies' lack of risk-taking and cinematic underachievement.  Les Mis is the antithesis of all of those films.  In fact, I was retiscent to even use it in the same sentence as the other titles.  Tom Hooper's adaptation of Les Mis is indeed, that: a true molding of the source material to fit the silver screen, and not merely translate or re-create what's been seen on stage for more than twenty-five years.  It's one of the great movie musicals, up there with the likes of Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story, and  The Wizard of Oz

Something marvelous happened when I went to see Les Mis: the insatiable Les Mis fan inside me disappeared entirely the moment the first chord of the film was struck.  He was replaced by the little kid watching Star Wars for the first time, or shrinking down into his seat upon hearing Williams's Jaws theme; that is, the film-buff part of me that always gets excited when watching a movie for the first time.  I try my best to approach all movies with a blank slate, and Les Mis forced me to do exactly that.  Hooper's production fits so perfectly on film that it would be hard for an uninitiated viewer to imagine it onstage.  In fact, for me a return to the stage would feel like a limitation of the wondrous scope Les Mis is now finally able to tap into; the broadest scope the story has seen since its inception in 1860s France.

The story, now classic and oft-lovingly imitated, revolves around Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who is released by Javert (Russell Crowe) from prison 19 years after he committed the crime of stealing a loaf of bread (numerous attempts at escape prolonged his sentence).  Valjean robs an old bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in the stage production) soon after his release, but after the Bishop shows him mercy, Valjean vows to redeem himself and begin a new life.  He becomes the mayor of a small town where Fantine (Anne Hathway) is forced into prostitution to feed her absent daughter Cosette.  Valjean promises a dying Fantine that he will fetch Cosette and raise her as his own daughter, despite the fact that Javert, now an inspector, seeks to arrest Valjean for breaking his parole.

The story continues from there (that's actually only the first third of the film), but the opening sequences contain such a raw power I have to elaborate on them.  Like the stage production, Les Mis is more an opera than a musical.  It is almost entirely sung-through, and while some songs stand alone from the advancement of the plot (mainly the ballads), most of the music accompanies the action of the story.  This could be tough for any movie-goer to get used to, but Hooper is a master in submerging us in production.  Here's why: he made the revolutionary, brilliant choice to have his actors sing every word of every take live on set.  The obvious reason is that it would be impractical to dub almost every sentence in a two-and-a-half hour movie.  The deeper reason is that Hooper didn't want to alienate his audiences with bombast.  "Singing live has such a profound effect on the emotion and realism of the story," Hooper commented.  "When singing to playback, it feels fake."

Indeed it does.  A common complaint of movie musicals is how detached they feel.  Audiences appreciate them for their escapism and spectacle, but rarely are they as consistently engaging as other film genres.  The live singing in Les Mis allows every song in the 157 minute running time to contain immense power.  All of the actors are courageous and prepared here.  I've never seen a movie with such a hard-working cast.  Not only are their voices up-to-par with the challenging score, but they truly act through their music.  Take, for instance, Hathaway's rendition of the well-known "I Dreamed a Dream."  Since its first performance, "Dreamed' has been the big, show-stopping number of the production.  Hathaway chose to take it in the complete opposite direction, however, and show restraint in her performance that is also paralleled in the accompanying orchestration (added after shooting was finished).  Her "Dreamed" is not a soaring ballad but a quiet, despairing condemnation of life's false hopes.  Hathaway brings frailty to her song.  She sobs, coughs, and moves her audience to tears.  In doing so, I imagine she has now set the standard for how the song will be performed by all Fantines in the future.  After her earthy, heartwrenching portrayal, previous actresses simply going for the high note ring false.  Hooper's live-singing decision saved the film from being an emotionally-detached spectacle.  Listening to the music or viewing the stage show, I never felt the emotion of Les Mis's story or characters like I did while viewing the movie.  These actors reach into your soul.

As Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman gives us a man who is haunted by his past all through his life, even after his redemption.  Stealing a loaf of bread to eat is a petty, harmless crime, of course.  What haunts Valjean is the man he became in prison.  One of the final lines in the film is his admission to an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) that he only truly turned from hating once she was in his care.  In the quiet number "Suddenly," added for the film, Valjean describes his overpowering emotions when the little Cosette comes into his life.  She gives him something to live for, and in his face, we see both fear of responsibility and giddy hope.  Despite the astounding cast surrounding him, Jackman carries much of the film on his shoulders.  The story demands it to be so.  Jackman is more than up to the task, however, physically and emotionally.  Whether it be in lifting a massive cart to save a man's life or quietly admitting the sins of his past, Jackman brings a soulfulness to Valjean rarely seen in film.

After he takes Cosette away from her corrupt caretakers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), Valjean seeks refuge in a nunnery.  While Cosette grows, revolution ferments in Paris.  As a young woman, she falls in love with revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne, previously unknown to me, is one of the film's biggest surprises and highlights), which changes the dynamic not only of her personal life, but also her relationship with Valjean.  Tragic Eponine (Samantha Barks) has her eyes on Marius as well, and Javert has come to Paris to put down the young dissenters.  The stage is set for bloodshed and despair.

Oh, and what despair there is.  This story wasn't titled "The Miserable Ones" for nothing.  A large number of our characters are dead by the film's end, having sacrificed themselves for the higher causes of love or social change.  The violence in the film isn't graphic or bloody, but the audience feels it.  We feel for Javert when he is thrown into such deep moral conflict after he must lead the charge in silencing the poor.  One small moment that was among the film's most moving for me finds Javert placing a small military medal upon the corpse of a child killed in the crossfire.  Crowe is the best Javert I've seen.  He brings suitable strength and rigidity to the role, but in his two big songs he conveys the conflicted and mildly self-loathing interior of Javert's soul.  His singing voice is earthier and deeper than his cast members, making his deep portrayal one of the film's most memorable.

The film's opulant visual portrayal of France would be stunning in and of itself, even if it weren't accompanied by Hugo's emotional story.  Eve Stewart's production design is modeled in a sense of heightened reality.  While accurately retaining the sensibilities of period France, she makes her corners sharper, her buildings taller, and her roofs curved.  The audience gets the feeling that we might not be seeing the exact Paris of 1830, but instead, the vibrant memory of the simultaneous squalor and grandeour of the time.  People say that memory is never truly accurate, that you never remember something the same way twice.  When we're in our memories, however, they feel even realer than when the event happened.  That's what it's like to be inside the France of Les Mis.  From the opening scene, where hundreds of grungy, bitter convicts hoist a massive ship into harbor in the torrential rain, to the final number, where hundreds gather around a mind-blowingly massive barricade in the memory of souls lost, Les Misérables lives in the moment, and it brings its audience with it. 

Les Misérables is one of the grandest movies I've had the pleasure of watching.  Its existence is a testament to the enduring power of artistic innovation, dedication, and integrity in a decade where we see so much sludge and disappointment at the movie theater.  This movie wasn't made to make a profit.  It wasn't made hastily or easily.  When watching it, one can see that everything in the movie is there for a reason.  Hooper pulled out all the stops in this one.  He made it the right way, and didn't settle for anything less than magnificence.  His cast, especially, is flawless.  There's not a weak link in this ensemble of talented performers.  They mold the classic story and make it fresh again, and what's more, they improve upon their source material to make something of rare beauty and perfection.  From this point on, movie musicals are gonna have to up their game.  It isn't often that a movie connects with its audience on such a fundamental level.  Les Misérables has undoubtedly made a place for itself on that perennial shelf where only the best movies reside: that reserved for the true classics that exemplify every nostalgic, fond, and impactful sense of the word; those that live on forever.

Les Misérables is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for suggestive and sexual material, violence, and thematic elements.  The movie is gritty and heartbreaking, as tragic fates befall characters that the audience identifies with and cares about.  Many protagonists, including a young boy, are shot and killed.  One main character commits suicide.  A woman is forced to sell her body to provide for her child, and in one brief, heartwrenching scene, we see her in bed with one of her customers.  Bawdy, albeit mostly mild, innuendo accompanies comedic numbers revolving around a pair of conniving innkeepers. 

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