Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Dec 25, 2012 2:07 pm 
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Musical miserablism, squared

Tom Hooper's Les Misérables, the Nth iteration of the long-popular 1980's English language musical stage adaptation of the French theater piece based on the 19th-century Victor Hugo novel, may be unlike the original musical in as many ways as it is like it, but diehard fans of the show are still likely to enjoy what they see; that's why we call them diehards. The film features most of the songs, the same oddly simplified plot, and quite a number of screen stars to make everything even more larger-than-life than ever. There's hubris here. The overblown and distracting production tends to get in the way of the songs and what should be the emotional highlights. The screen "Les Miz" still provides splendid, touching moments. But elaborate and ambitious though it is, this isn't the success Hooper achieved in his last film, The King's Speech.

Problematic to start off with: lots of the cast members aren't known at all as singers, and they do have to sing. Along with that, and making the musical aspect even iffier (assuming the music still matters in a musical), the production proudly eschews lip-synching, which means the live-recorded performances of the songs, a lot of which are wispy and semi a capella, have dramatic immediacy but lack musical polish. Which makes them seem less like songs and more like lyric-delivering recitative. And about the doggerel-rhyme verse we get to hear more clearly sometimes as a result, the less said the better.

Furthermore, there are problems with the way the film is shot. Despite glorious glimpses of Paris and other locations, the sets look artificial, and constantly get pushed into the background by tight in-your-face closeups in which wide-angle lenses fatten chiseled faces and shapely bodies unflatteringly. When the camera pulls back a bit, it tends to get tilted up on the right and down on the left or vice versa, creating annoying diagonals. Bustling but underlit scenes are bluish and dark till late in the game when the story turns to a revolt in the streets of Paris, finally shown in bright natural colour. By then you may have given up hope of seeing the light of day.

Hugh Jackson, a veteran song and dance man and a tall, handsome fellow, is of course sterling in the lead role of the noble and long-suffering Jean Valjean, imprisoned for twenty years for stealing a loaf a bread and then remaking himself, though pursued endlessly by his nemesis, the jailer, Javert. Crowe is saddled with the role (that's how it felt to me) of this sweetly singing but dramatically limp villain who keeps reappearing like a bad penny -- far too often and too fast because in the musical, all the long intervening passages of the 1300-page novel have been left out.

Surprisingly few other cast members stand out. As Fantine, the scrawny, screechy Anne Hathaway, starved and shaved and dirtied up after swiftly being shunted from factory worker to gutter-prostitute to martyr-mother, makes an unappealing pathetic dying heroine, though, to be sure, before expiring she delivers a heartfelt version of her character's anguished song about dreaming a dream that's generally considered the film's show-stopper. Like Crowe when he's endlessly standing on the battlements contemplating suicide much later, you just wish she'd hurry up and die. Fortunately she does and we can move to other tumultuous and confused events -- what's left of the novel makes only limited sense.

You probably know the basics of the story. Valjean of course gets out of prison, but, paroled for life, is a virtual fugitive. He's taken in by a noble cleric (Colm Wilkinson) whose silverware he steals, but who then saves him from going back to prison for another twenty years by claiming it was a gift. The good guys are just so, so good and the baddies are way too evil to take seriously. An already highly sentimental and over-the-top novel has been changed into something like a medieval morality play for the musical. But of course this is not a criticism of the film; it was already there in the material Hopper and the cast and crew were working from, and it has satisfied millions of ticket holders. I approach it all as a skeptic, not that I haven't enjoyed earlier musicals, and some more sophisticated later ones.

I was personally most taken with the freckle-faced Eddie Redmayne in a big breakthrough role as the young revolutionary lover Marius and by Samantha Barks making a great debut as his frustrated admirer Éponine. Ms. Barks was one person who really seemed to be singing rather than overacting in a wispy falsetto; and her main songs were rare and welcome occasions when Hooper and his King's Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen don't get in the way. Best of all was the tiny 12-year-old Daniel Huttlestone, who mostly doesn't even have to sing but just talks flavourful cockney, as the little revolutionary martyr boy, Gavroche.

But before the lovers and the revolutionaries come along we have to put up with the intensely mugging Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baran Cohen, reprising their Sweeney Todd roles, as the comically greedy and repulsive Thénardiers, who run a thieving inn where all the guests are fleeced dry. A more repulsive place could not even have been imagined by Bonham Carter's husband, Tim Burton, who has used her so often in his movies it's hard not to be a bit sick of her. It's with this repulsive, scatological interlude that everybody starts beginning to sound very British and on the cockney side, and Valjean, for a while a factory owner and mayor, now in flight from Russell Crowe again, mysteriously adopts an orphan under the questionable care of the Thénardiers, little Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who is to be his companion and the love of his life, except that she's his adopted daughter. With breathtaking suddenness Cosette grows up into Amanda Seyfried, and the fresh-faced but (we're briefly told) well-off revolutionary Marius falls somewhat unconvincingly in love with her, amid carousing and barricade-building and with Samantha Barks hovering around mooning over him. Then there's fighting and blood and martyrdom and some changes of heart. Little Daniel Huttlestone does something really brave. It all happens with that much speed and makes that much sense.

The revolution, whatever it was (actually the 1832 Paris student uprising), has been lost -- and Eddie Redmayne sings his heart out and cries over his lost comrades in an empty, ruined garret: very nice. But he still gets to be with Amanda Seyfried, and Hugh Jackman turns into a saint, finally free because Russell Crowe has very reluctantly jumped into the sewer, or the Seine, I wasn't sure which. A sure delight to fans of the musical, this screen version will, I think, leave skeptics still doubting, though I protest I do like musicals sometimes, just more tuneful and less bombastic ones than this.

Les Misérables, 157mins., opened in the US Christmas 2012 and the UK 10th Jan. 2013.

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