Saturday, January 12, 2013


Helena Bonham Cartier as the devious Madame Thenardier
For the improbable few who don't know, Les Miserable is a remarkable novel by Victor Hugo, set in mid nineteenth century, post-Napoleonic France.  The main character is a good but traduced man called Jean Valjean who lives under an alias to escape his convict past.  He is hunted by Javert, a cop whose strict adherence to the rule of law will not admit mercy or humanity.  In the first half, Valjean is redeemed by the mercy of a priest, witnesses the death of a seamstress turned hooker called Fantine and promises to care for her daughter Cosette. Together they escape Javert in the anonymity of Paris.  In the second half, Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary young aristo called Marius, who is also beloved by the sad little innkeepers' daughter, Eponine. Valjean realises that rather than escape Javert by fleeing to London, he must save Marius from certain death on the barricade. In doing so, he challenges Javert to let him pass with the dying boy, thus fundamentally destroying Javert's worldview and self worth.  Javert commits suicide, and Valjean dies, his family knowing his true worth. 

In the 1980s, the novel was reworked as a musical by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alan Boublil. They stripped the Victor Hugo classic of its baggy social exposition leaving the bare bones of a story of young love crossed with a tragedy of redemption versus the rule of law. They also added a handful of truly superb songs and the comic relief of the con-artist inn-keepers, the Thenardiers. The result was a product of memorable songs, and overt sentimentality.  The only character of any real psychological interest was the conflicted Javert.  Even poor Eponine, suffering unrequited love, is so good that she leads her beloved Marius to Cosette.  It is, then, almost uniquely, a movie in which all the major characters are wholly good, and their songs speak to worthy but unfulfilled longing.  There are no song and dance numbers here. It's just torch song after torch song interspersed with the one truly comic number at the inn.

I am conflicted about Tom Hooper's translation of the musical to the big screen.  There is much to be commended.  He forces the actors to sing live during the take, rather than miming to a prerecorded track, giving the movie an emotional authenticity that is entirely novel.  Surely movie musicals can never go back from this new high bar?  Hooper is also unabashedly faithful to the original - capturing its grandeur and melodrama, ringing every last tear from his audience. I doubt any fan of the original will be disappointed with this on-screen translation. Hooper is fortunate in his cast. Hugh Jackman's background in musical theatre is well known and it shines through here with his heartbreaking Valjean. We have seen Amanda Seyfried sing in MAMA MIA! and are unsurprised by her pretty but slightly too trilly soprano.  Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne as Fantine and Marius prove to be highly capable singers too.   The only weak link is Russell Crowe as Javert, but I didn't mind this at all as it is far more important that we believe his psychological deterioration in the final act - an d Crowe sells this well.  Of course, it was predictable that Eponone, played by Sarah Barkman, would be a scene-stealer given her theatrical background, and as usual we get the Papageno/Poor Joe effect with little Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche.  As comic turns, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are predictably superb as the Thenardiers. 

Behind the camera, I love the ambition of Tom Hooper's vision.  The first scene that rises through murky waters to high above a dangerously listing great ship.  The choice of a beautifully ornate Catholic Church on an isolated hilltop for Valjean's conversion.  The use of colour in the scenes with barricades - the red of Enjolras' coat.  The metaphor of having Javert always walk on the edge of the precipice.  I particularly liked the idea of Fantine singing "I dreamed a dream" almost immediately after selling herself for the first time, utterly destroyed and vulnerable.

But there is one directorial choice that I found utterly grating, and for which I think the Academy was right to deny Hooper a Best Director nomination because it is so very fundamental to the success of the film. As I said before, Les Mis is different because the songs are rather uniform. There are no song and dance numbers, and only one out and out comic turn. Rather we have a mix of earnest, heartbreaking torch songs and earnest heartbreaking doomed political chants. Unfortunately, Hooper has chosen not to  vary his style of filming. In general he cuts between camera angles but keeps his camera still and focused, often in extreme close-up, on the singer.  I get this with Valjean's conversion. And I get it for Fantine's big turn.  But for every other song? By the time I got to Marius' "Empty chairs at empty tables" I was desperate for some kind of variation, and this detracted from Redmayne emoting his heart out. This lack of directorial imagination, or perhaps the fixation with a novel idea that was taken too far, is this movie's Achilles Heel.  So that while it works emotionally, and the performances and design impress, as a work of pure cinema, it fails. 

LES MISERABLES is on release in Japan, Australia, Hong Kong, Canada, Singapore, Spain, the USA, Hungary, Malaysia, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Lebanon, Portugal, Bulgaria, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Ireland, Mexico, the UK and Vietnam.  It opens on January 18th in Estonia, Iceland, Norway and Sweden; on January 25th in Poland and Romania; on January 31st in Italy, Slovenia, Thailand and Brazil; on February 8th in Russia and Taiwan; on February 14th in Cyprus, France, Argentina and Greece; on February 21st in Belgium, Germany and Finland; on March 1st in Turkey and on March 21st in Denmark.

LES MISERABLES is rated PG 13 in the USA and the running time is 157 minutes.

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