Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)

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It appears that everybody has an opinion of this film, the adaptation of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables. Sporting an all-star cast of both big-name actors and Broadway and West End performers, this was a film that the musical's diehard fanbase has been awaiting for three decades -- the film that brought the music to life on theater screens across the nation, so that they didn't have to take an expensive trip to New York or settle for watching a recording of the production on their TVs.

Before I go into this review, I will disclose that, while I have seen Les Miz on Broadway (the 2006 revival, specifically), and liked it, I was unfortunate enough to have done so as part of a school trip that landed up in the nosebleed section. Sitting far away from the stage greatly lessened the impact of the experience. It stood in stark contrast to the performance of Damn Yankees that I saw at Millburn, New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse last year -- a much more enjoyable experience, seated as I was in the lower aisles much closer to the stage. Seeing Les Miz in a movie theater was the polar opposite of my experience seeing it on Broadway. Watching the film, I saw why it had such a devoted fandom. This was a breathtaking experience, capturing the scope of the story thanks to the work of a dedicated cast and direction that, while uneven, is amazing when it works.

Headlining the cast is Hugh Jackman as the hero Jean Valjean, a man on the run from the law over petty circumstances. With experience in both musical theater and as a Hollywood A-lister, Jackman understands that, onscreen, you are required to act as much as you are required to sing. As a result, while his singing isn't pitch-perfect, his performance as Valjean is so outstanding that it doesn't matter. Instead of focusing on hitting all the right notes, Jackman sings as though he were actually, say, dragging a large ship into harbor. He plays it big, and it works. The same goes for Anne Hathaway as Fantine, the factory worker who gets fired for lying about being a virgin and is forced to shed her dignity in order to support her daughter Cosette. One of the most heartbreaking characters in theater, Fantine is brought to life by Hathaway in a role that stands out as one of the best in the film despite her relatively little screen time (especially in a film that's two and a half hours long). Between this and her equally stunning role in The Dark Knight Rises, playing a character that couldn't be more different from the suffering woobie Fantine, Hathaway shows herself as one of the best actresses of her generation, and should be up for a Best Supporting Actress nod when the Oscar nominations are announced. (To think that she came out of the Disney school of acting...) The third big standout is British actress Samantha Barks, reprising the role of the teenage lover 
Éponine from the West End production in 2010. She knows this role like the back of her hand, and she is amazing, capturing perfectly why Éponine has been called the patron saint of lovelorn teenage girls everywhere. (Not a surprise; she first played the role in the West End when she was 19.)

The chief weak link in the cast is Russell Crowe as the villain Javert, the fanatical police inspector who has dedicated his life to hunting down Valjean and bringing this "dangerous" bread thief to justice after he broke parole. The problem isn't his singing, which so many other reviewers have harped on; if anything, his rough voice fits his character as a no-nonsense policeman. Rather, the problem is with his acting. He seems bored, failing to capture the emotion of many key scenes. Oftentimes, he has other cast members to hold him up, but in his big musical number, arguably the climax of the film, he fails to pull through. Amanda Seyfried is also forgettable as the grown-up Cosette, though this isn't as much through any fault of her own; she did a merely good job while surrounded by performers who did great jobs.

The directing, by Tom Hooper of The King's Speech fame, is great when it's good and wretched when it's bad, and fortunately, it's more good than bad. Let's get the bad out of the way first. The bad comes in with the faster, more action-packed scenes like the climatic barricade battle, during which Hooper falls victim to the same trap that befalls many a first-time action director -- over-reliance on shaky-cam to convey chaos at the expense of coherence. Hurting the film further in that department is the lack of transition scenes and establishing shots, in a misguided attempt to cut the run time to something manageable. Adding about ten minutes worth of those scenes and giving the film room to breathe would've greatly helped the film's flow without making the film too much longer, and without them, transitions can be jarring and clunky. However, one of the best decisions Hooper made with this film was to require the actors to sing live on camera rather than lip-synch their performances and record them later. Others have criticized the film for this, but there is a big difference between merely mouthing your lines and actually speaking them (or singing them, as was the case here). Saying the lines is necessary to properly convey emotion, and Hooper, remembering that he was making a movie in addition to adapting a musical, ensured that his actors delivered the best possible performances. In addition, the less hectic moments are characterized by long shots that focus squarely on the performers for a few minutes at a time, putting their singing front and center rather than distracting the viewer.

Score: 4 out of 5

Les Miz is a flawed film, make no mistake. But if you're a fan of the show, then this is close to the best substitute for a long trip to New York or London you could possibly get. If you don't like musicals, then nothing I said can convince you to go see this, but if you can accept, if not embrace, some singing with your tale of love and revolution, then go check this out.

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