Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables (2012)

Les Misérables (2012)
Dir. Tom Hooper 

4 out of 5 

Familiarity is both an asset and an obstacle for Les Misérables, Oscar winner Tom Hooper's adaptation of the beloved, long-running stage musical based on Victor Hugo's novel about the underclass of post-Napoleonic France.  Rumblings regarding a film version began shortly after its 1987 Broadway debut and continued as the show's sweeping anthems seeped their way into pop culture through appropriation and parody in places as unexpected as South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut.  All that time in development hell, however, has allowed for a certain amount of product saturation to set in among its target demographic:  the rabid and organically expanding fanbase that has devoured the cast recordings, the anniversary concerts, and the national tours, not to mention the original's impressive 16-year run on Broadway.  

I am one of what feels like the last few remaining people on Earth who had never heard or seen anything Les Mis-related before Hooper's film. And though I'd like to think my relative innocence gives me a unique perspective, it really only means I may only judge its success as a movie and not as an adaptation, much less a "musical phenomenon."  And you know what?  I liked what I saw in Les Misérables.  Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a principled man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  The lawman Javert (Russell Crowe) releases Valjean but vows to hunt him down when he breaks parole, beginning a decades-spanning game of cat-and-mouse.  Along the way, Valjean becomes the adoptive father of Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the illegitimate daughter of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of student revolutionaries Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit).

For anyone familiar with the stage version, the plot will undoubtedly be their strongest bearing as they adjust to the unorthodox choices made in this story's translation to the screen.  Hooper ditches the conventions of the proscenium-bound stage and attacks Les Mis with a style best described as "aggressively cinematic."  Shooting his actors among cramped quarters with long, unbroken close-ups, the vibe is closer to that of a grubby period drama than a lavish, decadent musical (a choice I found appropriate, given the tone of the source material).  In what is perhaps Hooper's lone concession to Les Mis' stage roots, he recorded the cast's vocals live on set rather than having them lip-synch to a studio recording.  It admittedly takes some getting used to - it sounds tinny at first, and not every performer is up to the challenge vocally - but eventually pays off with highlights like Hathaway's powerhouse rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" and the showstopping double climax of "One Day More" and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"

Maybe we'll never fully understand how a dense pop opera that hinges upon an obscure republican revolution in 19th century France morphed into the quintessence of modern musical theater, but I'll be damned if Les Misérables doesn't give its audience a good sense of the alchemy going on here.  Not all of the choices are sound (Crowe is a conspicuous outlier in terms of singing ability, but I'd argue that the role requires someone with his strong acting chops) and, like many musical plots, it relies on a variety of quickly-developed contrivances and lapses in rational thought.  And even without an intermission, it feels every bit as long as its 150-minute running time promises.  At the end of the day, the brilliant score and dynamic lyricism of creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (who co-scripted the film with William Nicholson and Herbert Kretzmer) supersedes most of the film's weaknesses.  Les Misérables is a stirring triumph that combines classic songwriting with ambitious direction, a film that appropriately breaks from the conventions of a theatrical production while preserving its emotional essence and a film that connected with me in spite of my skepticism.  It felt like discovering the warm, satisfying comforts of home, hearth, family, and friendship after a long night journey - ultimately, isn't that what Les Mis is all about?

1 comment:

  1. As someone in the same boat (never saw or listened to the stage musical), I completely agree with you.