Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Miserables (2012) Review

Last night my teenage daughter and I went to see Les Miserables (2012), the latest Hollywood offering of musical theatre's very best.  I was first introduced to Les Miserables in the summer of my junior year of high school because my choir director, Mrs. Barbara Nathman, wanted us to do a medley of Les Mis.  I fell in love with the musical and Colm Wilkenson's portrayal of Jean Valjean and it was one of the proudest moments in my life when I was chosen to sing the solo part "Bring Him Home." I've even read the book.

Over the years I've been to see the actual musical twice, live on stage, and I've enjoyed both the American and London versions of the spectacular musical play by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, based upon the nineteenth century novel by Victor Hugo.  Over the years I've become partial to the London version, which includes the spectacular piece sung by the character Gavroche entitled "Little People", which the Broadway version eliminated. 

Converting any well known play to film is a challenge for any director.  First you run into the expectations of fans, who have long been accustomed to hearing certain voices portray their favorite characters.  Then there is the issue of making a play that is easily four hours long, with an intermission, into something that theater-goers can sit through.  This requires some creative editing.  On the other hand, movies have larger budgets for props and sets, don't have to subsist within the framework of limited space (i.e. the stage) and no matter where you, the audience, is sitting, the camera can give you a front row seat. 

Director Tom Hooper does a fantastic job of bringing Les Miserables to the big screen, creating the sense and feel of the original musical while maintaining a cohesive plot and filling in the gaps.  There are even a few touching moments, never seen in the musical, that add a spark of creativity to the movie version, like the moment where Inspector Javert, played by veteran actor Russel Crowe, places his police medal on the body of the dead Gavroche.  My only complaint about the general cinematography was that occasionally the hand held camera wobbled and shook and made watching on the big screen somewhat difficult for me.

The directing wasn't the only powerful performance of the evening.  Hands down the prime award goes to Hugh Jackman, who as the might Jean Valjean, delivers a performance that comes out decidedly different from Colm Wilkenson's portrayal of that character.  While Wilkenson's Valjean was dramatic and powerful, Jackman brings to the screen an emotional Valjean, one who knows that the audience will actually see the tears and heart-wrenching depth of feeling.  Jackman, who is also a lover of Les Mis and has a background in musical theatre, brings his A game to the screen and delivers some poignant moments as Fontine's protector and Cosette's adoptive father.

I've always been a fan of Russel Crowe and feel that he is a top of the line actor.  Unfortunately, Les Mis was not his best work as far as I was concerned. My daughter felt differently (but then, she's a Crowe fan) and vehemently disagreed with my opinions concerning Crowe's performance.  Crowe's rendition of Inspector Javert is of a calm, stoic, relentless enforcer of law, yet lacks any of the anger and despair that I have become accustomed to from the stage versions of the character.  To me, Crowe seemed wooden, with every song delivered with the same lack of intensity, or perhaps I should say, a similar intensity that never moves into something more harsh.  I'm used to an aggressive Javert and Russel Crowe was about as aggressive as Swiss cheese.  Even the song "Confrontation," my favorite piece between Javert and Valjean, is sung with the same intensity as "Stars".  I don't blame Crowe though. I blame the casting crew.  I couldn't help thinking "gosh, if only this wasn't the musical version, I bet Crowe would be a fantastic Javert!"

Anne Hathaway as Fontine was also a pleasant surprise.  After appreciating her form in the last Batman movie (who can forget her riding that bike, right?) it was nice to see that Hathaway can handle a more serious role that requires not only the talent to convey extreme emotion, but to do it with a clear voice.  She too brought her A game to the screen and did it well.  Of course, what crossed my mind during "Lovely Ladies" was that for the first time, I thought Anne Hathaway WASN'T attractive!

That's Anne Hathaway in Batman, a very different image of her compared to Fontine in Les Mis!
The surprise of the evening was Samantha Barks, the British singer who played Eponine.  Fans of Les Mis' know that Eponine, the daughter of the Thenadiers and the young waif who loves Maris but is not loved in return, is one of the most poignant and sympathetic characters of the musical.  Barks, who made her film debut in this movie, has played Eponine on stage for years and she made the transition from stage to screen easily.  In my mind she was easily the most powerful of the singers, and the one who brought the flavor of the character to its fullest fruition.  I can't tell you how disappointed I was when the director made the decision to cut short "Little Fall of Rain," Eponine's duet with Marius, and even altered the traditional ending slightly.  Barks "On My Own" however should go down in the annuals of "best performances," and I admit I felt goosebumps watching her wander the streets of Paris in the dark rain, wishing the man she loved, loved her back.
Samantha Barks rocked.
My daughter would also kill me if I didn't mention Helena Bonham Carter.  To be honest, I kept looking for a cameo for Johnny Depp, but he never appeared.  All jokes aside, Carter who has the amazing ability to take outrageous roles and make them her own, becomes the "Master's Spouse" with her typical talent.  Long time fans of Les Mis, especially musically oriented ones, know that the roles of the Thenadiers are particularly trying ones both musically, and in stagecraft.  Lyrical pieces are easy.  Comedy?  That's hard.  Carter does it perfectly and the little addition by the directing/writing team of having Thenadier constantly forgetting Cosette's name, while constantly being corrected by Carter, was pure genius.

I didn't much care for Eddie Redmayne's "Marius."  His voice was too high pitched and after hearing Michael Ball for years in the role, I couldn't help feeling that Eddie needed to go through puberty first before taking on the role.  My daughter disagreed, but I'm more used to hearing deeper, more dramatic voices go with these characters.  George Bladgen as Grantaire was excellent as was Daniel Huttlestone, who played Gavroche.  The addition of a Huttlestone singing bits of "Little People" while crawling across the front of the barricade to retrieve gunpowder and shot from the fallen French soldiers was inspired.

And lastly, there was one other actor who I loved seeing.  Throughout the story, Jean Valjean is confronted by the fact that he committed a crime and was then saved by the bishop, who "bought is soul for God."  The bishop was played by longtime Les Mis actor, Colm Wilkenson, who despite his age, took the role and breathed life into it.  It was a fitting tribute to a man who made the name Jean Valjean legend. 

If you've never seen Les Miserables and you enjoy dramatic, emotion laden story and music, then you will enjoy Les Mis' in any form.  The movie is a phenomenal adaptation of the stage production and serves well between the occasional live productions I can take myself and my family to see.  Certainly worthy of five stars.

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