Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Les Misérables

Director: Tom Hooper
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Isabelle Allen, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 158 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As someone who's usually not a fan of musicals and was completely unfamiliar with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables on stage or screen, here presents that rare opportunity for me to go into a movie cold. Knowing so little about it, preconceived notions tend to disappear, or at least fade as far into the background as possible. But it still turned out to be a more fulfilling and entertaining experience than my few expectations had prepared me for. It's also a bizarre one, as certain creative and technical decisions are made by Academy Award winning director Tom Hooper that will likely raise the eyebrows of even those who care little about these sorts of things. Arguments could go on all day as to whether they enhance or detract from the material, but at the end it may not even matter. Since all fans will remember is whether it remains true to the source, Hooper's preaching to the choir here. Everyone else will likely be more divided, but it's pretty cut and dry what works and what doesn't, as one section of the story clearly surpasses the other. At the top of the list of successes is the inspired casting, followed closely by a sensational opening hour that sets in motion a chain events that spans nearly twenty years and claims more than a few victims. As the running time wears on and the characters start dropping like flies, it's almost too easy to revert to the joke that this should have been titled Les MISERABLE. Few will debate the film starts losing steam after the opening sixty minutes, but there's still a lot to recommend in a story so expansive that there's genuine doubt all the characters could die of old age before the final credits roll.

Opening in 1815, Les Misérables really tells two tales that eventually converge as one giant, sweeping one. The first involves convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who's released on parole by prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), but manages to escape and start a new life for himself, eight years later becoming a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer in France. When one of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is fired and forced to sell her hair and turn to prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen) Valjean steps in to become the girl's guardian. Now, years later and set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, Valjean is still being trailed by police inspector Javert while an adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) becomes the object of Marius Pontmercy's (Eddie Redmayne) affections, much to the dismay of his good friend, Éponine (Samantha Barks), who harbors a secret crush on him. As Javert draws closer to apprehending Valjean, the political turmoil escalates, putting all their lives in danger as a country's future hangs in the balance.          

The first hour of this film is so strong on every level possible that it was almost inevitable that the remainder of it wouldn't be able to keep pace. And Anne Hathaway's Oscar winning supporting performance as the dying Fantine is the major reason why. She has only maybe a little more than 10 minutes of screen time, but makes the most of each grueling moment, effectively selling her character's rapid descent into hopelessness.  Losing her hair and over twenty pounds, her gut-wrenching rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is without question the defining scene of the movie and it's a magic that isn't quite recaptured once Hathaway makes her exit. Was the role predestined, if not calculated, to win her the Oscar? Maybe, but who cares when she's this good.

It's also the best work Jackman's done in a while as a man on the run, shamed by his secret past as a criminal and racked by his own guilt. The decade plus cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between him and Javert is the film's greatest narrative asset, even when being overshadowed by other goings on in the third act. Russell Crowe himself would probably readily admit his singing isn't exactly the most polished in the cast, at times coming across as a strange hybrid of William Shatner's spoken word albums from the '60's and Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! Crowe's not a singer, but because he's such a formidable actor he's able to pull off absolute lunacy with confidence and conviction. Whether it was for the right reasons or not, I looked forward to every appearance he made. As the swindling, manipulative Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter feel as if they've just stepped off Tim Burton's set, embodying comedic goth creepiness as the innkeepers mistreating young Cosette and extorting her mother. Cohen is fantastic in the role, making "Master of the House," in which he sings about cheating the inn's patrons, the most raucous and purely enjoyable number in the film. If nothing else, the characters deserve credit for their surprising staying power, as few would guess these seemingly one-dimensional villains figure into the action as much and as long as they do.

Unfortunately, everything comes to a grinding halt once we get to the love triangle, which never seems to take off despite spirited efforts from all involved. Because the time jump is so sudden and jarring, it's difficult to immediately adjust to Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks as older versions of the child characters we got to know earlier. But they do well nonetheless. Seyfried, besides being a dead ringer to child counterpart Isabelle Allen in looks, is definitely the best singer in the cast, while Barks, who actually played Éponine on stage, sings and acts her heart out in a role that might not be quite as large as you expected. That her part almost went to Taylor Swift would be shocking if not for the fact that the content of this romantic sub-plot isn't entirely dissimilar to that of her hit songs. As for Redmayne, this marks the second time after My Week with Marilyn that he appears to be a spectator in his own movie as the young lovesick revolutionary. In some ways, Aaron Tveit, who plays his friend and charismatic leader of the movement, Enjolras, makes more of an impression. What saves this section is the music and the fact Hooper gets his act together in time for a strong, emotional finale focusing on the characters we want to see, even if most of them are dead by that point.

This isn't one of those movie musicals that directs itself or is in any way shot like a stage play directly transposed to the screen. Hooper's style is umistakenly "in your face" with weird dutch angles and extreme close-ups that could feel like an invasion of personal space for certain viewers. This is especially true of the Hathaway sequence, where the camera doesn't leave her face the entire time. At times it is too much and it's easy to see why many may not be on board with the approach or feel it's just a filmmaker showing off at the expense of the material. But for me, any bells and whistles were necessary since this was just never going to in my wheelhouse no matter what. The best that could be hoped for was to be sufficiently entertained and Les Mis did deliver that in spades It's never boring or uninteresting. Strangely, it sometimes suffers from the opposite problem, moving a mile a minute with hardly a moment to breathe and take it all in. But as far as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have.          

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