THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
According to IMDb, Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables has been adapted for the screen at least nine times. Despite being a rather depressing story about a lot of seriously unhappy people, it has held a continuing resonance for audiences. It really gives lie to the whole idea that people prefer warm-and-fuzzy stories with happy endings. The newest movie version is based on the beloved stage musical that has been captivating audiences since 1980. I come to the musical as a relative newbie. I knew the story from previous film versions, and I was vaguely familiar with three of the songs: “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” and “Master of the House.” (That last one I knew from the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza gets it stuck in his head.) I also know that people who are fans of the Broadway show have very strong opinions on it. What they will think of director Tom Hooper's (The King's Speech) version, I cannot say. The film strikes me, though, as a lush, engaging take on the tale, filled with strong performances of both the musical and the dramatic variety.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, a thief who undergoes a religious conversion and turns his life around, yet continues to be pursued by the dogged policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). As part of his new-found values system, Valjean helps care for an abused factory worker named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who has taken some drastic steps to earn money to support her daughter. When Fantine dies, Valjean rescues the little girl, Cosette, from the custody of a money-grubbing innkeeper (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his equally avaricious wife (Helena Bonham Carter). Eight years later, he falls in with some French revolutionaries, one of whom, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), becomes romantically involved with the now-grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), much to the dismay of the adolescent street urchin, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves him. As the events of the revolution play out, Valjean comes to realize that he can no longer hide from Javert, which is okay so long as he can keep Cosette safe.
Les Miserables is a true musical; even the dialogue is sung. To make things even more compelling, the actors sing live, with no lip synching to a prerecorded track. It's stagey in the best possible way. What the film benefits from that the stage musical could never have is a grandness of scale. Hooper uses visual effects to recreate 19th century France and to produce sequences that couldn't be pulled off in any other medium. The opening musical number, for instance, finds Valjean and other prisoners using ropes to pull a massive ship into port. Together with cinematographer Danny Cohen, the director also palpably captures the squalor in which Fantine lives by having the camera periodically swoop up into the sky to give us a bird's eye view of the scenery. Scenes set in the French Revolution, meanwhile, have a grittier feel, sometimes taking on the form of an action movie, complete with explosions and shootouts. Although the elaborate visual trickery – while technically appropriate for the operatic nature of the material – becomes a slight bit bombastic toward the end, Hooper and his team do an effective job of translating the musical to a cinematic format, finding ways to make it distinct and immersive.
Of course, casting major movie stars can be a gamble, especially if they are shaky in the vocal department. The stars of Les Miserables all have singing credentials, and all do a fine job. Stage vet Hugh Jackman is a solid Valjean, convincingly showing us how running from Javert is really running from his own shameful past. Crowe (who sings in a rock band when he's not acting) capitalizes on his imposing persona, creating a Javert whose tenacity is almost a point of pride. The standout, however, is Anne Hathaway, who delivers the kind of performance that sends chills up your spine. Her big moment is the “I Dreamed a Dream” number, in which she sings flawlessly, acts, and cries simultaneously, all in one unbroken closeup that lasts the duration of the song. As when Jennifer Hudson sang “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls, it's a bravura performance that makes you want to stand up and start applauding.
Knowing he has a powerhouse cast with which to work, Hooper carries out the musical numbers in ingenious, effective ways. As Valjean sings about his search for religious guidance, the director has Jackman pace back and forth through a church, moving more frantically as his desperation grows. The “Master of the House” sequence is played for comedy, with Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter hamming it up amidst a barrage of visual jokes. Eponine's tune of yearning for Marius is handled more softly, keeping the camera close on Samantha Barks, the better for us to feel her emotion. While it may not be the sort of toe-tapping musical that Grease and Hairspray are, Les Miserables is enticing in its marriage of music and visuals.
The film makes a few minor stumbles. I found the first half, which focuses on the desperate existences from which Valjean and Fantine try to escape, slightly more emotionally involving than the second half, which focuses on the revolutionaries. The battle scenes simply aren't as wrenching as the more personal moments. I also didn't feel there was much heat between Marius and Cosette. This is not to fault the actors. Both Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried are perfectly fine in their roles; there just isn't any chemistry. Their romance is supposed to be the heart of the tale, yet because the characters generate such little heat, a bit of the thrill is taken away. Thankfully, the movie pulls out a finale that packs a punch and sends you out on a high note.
A prestige production in every sense, Les Miserables is gloriously entertaining. Those few little quibbles aside, it's made me a believer in the musical incarnation of Hugo's novel.
( 1/2 out of four)
Les Miserables is rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. The running time is 2 hours and 37 minutes.
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