Les Misérables (2012)
What a formidable year Hollywood has had.The cherry on top should be a period musical and Les Misérables appears magically, bang in the middle of the Oscar season to stir things up.Musicals do not appear in Hollywood with the kind of numbness inducing regularity that they do in Bollywood, where serial killers dutifully run around the Swiss Alps singing ditties before slitting the starlets throat. Hollywod Musicals are timed meticulously, the cost of failure is big and the stakes high.Interestingly for Les Misérables with its central character, Jean Valjean who is a poster boy for Christian virtues, the timing is serendipitous, with the resignation of the Pope precipitating a minor crisis in the Roman Catholic Church.
Tom Hooper of The Kings Speech fame directs his energies to bringing the stage musical to screen.By now the story is fairy well known, it follows the heroic arc of Jean Valjean’s(Hugh Jackman) life who is imprisoned for stealing bread, for 19 years, released on parole and branded an eternal threat to society.He skips his parole and seeks refuge in a church where the priest makes a giant leap of faith and gives him a second chance.He uses it to build a life of virtue but his nemesis, the prison-guard turned inspector Javert(Russel Crowe) is on his trail and pursues him relentlessly, never taking note of the saintliness in Valjean.
The second arc of the story centers of Fantine( Anne Hathaway) who is a worker in Valjean’s factory and in a cruel turn of fate loses her job and ends up a prostitute.She has a daughter Cosette(Amanda Seyfried) that the saintly Valjean adopts and who begins a affair with a young revolutionary.This is a story full of melodrama and anguish, morality and revolution, love and passion. The material lends itself naturally to a musical format as proven by the huge success of the stage version written by Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s persistent resonance can be found in the singing of “Do You Hear the People Sing” by Hong Kong mourners to memorialize Tiananmen Square .Susan Boyle became a sensation with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on the TV show “Britain’s Got Talent.”
Ms Hathaway’s rendition of “I dreamt a dream” is certainly the heart of the film.Hooper films this in close up with her haunted face in focus and the background completely blurred.The camera sways gently to the rhythms of her singing which is first rate and acting which is extraordinary.This is the strategy of live singing in action which eschews lip synced playback favored in most musicals.This allows actors a grater freedom to mix facial expressions with verbal intonation.It works very well throughput Les Misérables except for Russel Crowe who allows the burden of singing to mar his already unremarkable performance.Hugh Jackman who has the starring role here tries valiantly to raise to the occasion, but is slightly let-down by Hooper who does not give him the kind of opportunity accorded to Ms Hathaway, namely to forge a direct connection with the audience.
Then there are the Thénardiers , a comic crooked Dickensian couple who exploit the young Cosette, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen.The wonderful thing about Bonham Carter is her ability be both Helena Bonham and her character in every situation, no matter how overpowering her makeup.Sacha Baron Cohen brings his Borat touch to this film, his antics are distilled from his patented internalized incorrigibility.I pray he makes a film based on The Pope next.
Les Misérables was written by Victor Hugo in the mid-nineteenth century and is one of the longest novels every written running into more than 1500 pages. At its heart is a priest who commits a great act of faith, buying a thief’s soul for God.The novel also contained great passages of moral digressions and commentary. All this has provided fertile material for a host of films, TV mini series and a super hit broadway musical.Among the films Claude Lelouch’s interpretation of the novel, intercut with French history during the Nazi occupation and Billie Augusts 1998 film which had a maddeningly obstinate interpretation of Javert by Geoffry Rush, stand out.
As I watched the film my memory of the classical paintings of the 17th and 18th century got activated. Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch came to mind with its huge size and a vast cast of characters filling the space in an animated military march.But the most direct influence must be Eugène Delacroix and his Liberty Leading the People which also inspired Victor Hugo.While using these classical paintings to compose shots is the right strategy in a dramatic film, a more intimate framing serves a musical better as the Hathaway single illustrates.Hooper also uses the colors of the French flag effectively starting with a dominance of blues in the soulful first act and moving on to finish on a passionate burst of red in the finale.
A musical based on a popular stage musical packed with A-list stars and directed by an Oscar winner with a big budget at his disposal will need to try very hard to fail.This film has enough star power, visual elegance and a rousing score to satisfy most musical junkies.The folks who are normally not the musical types may find themselves yearning for a more conventional dramatic treatment of this formidable tale.All musicals are events, try watching it with a fanboy crowd for best results.While Les Misérables scrapes into the list of Best Picture nominees, its scale and prestige tramples over many more smaller worthier films.
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