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LES MISERABLES
(**)
Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:
Tom Hooper
Writers:
Based on the musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil which was adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo. English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer .
Starring:
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway
Length:   152 minutes
Released:   122512
Rating:
PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements
“...the vast majority of the fans of the show-will come away from it entirely satisfied with the results and that, in a strange way, is a big part of what is wrong with the entire enterprise" 

After years and years of waiting, false starts and the like, the musical version of the classic Victor Hugo novel "Les Miserables" has finally made the transition from the stage to the big screen in a lavish adaptation clocking in at nearly three hours and featuring plenty of A-list talent in the major roles under the direction of a man whose previous effort took home the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. My guess is that the vast majority of the fans of the show--such people do exist--will come away from it entirely satisfied with the results and that, in a strange way, is a big part of what is wrong with the entire enterprise. Unless I am very much mistaken, one should come away from this material feeling excited, enthralled and emotionally stirred by the proceedings and in fact, there is just enough of that sense in the early going to suggest that it might actually work equally well for devotees as well as those who tend to consider musicals to be endurance contests more than anything else. That spell is soon broken however and it eventually becomes a leaden bore that practically suffocates under its own sense of self-importance and is further handicapped by some extremely questionable hiring's on both sides of the camera.

It seems only fair to begin a review of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables with the disclaimer that there’s probably no cinematic adaptation of the long-running stage musical that would completely win me over. The show’s music—by Claude-Michel Schönberg, with the original French lyrics rendered in English by Herbert Kretzmer—just isn’t my bag. Les Misérables is a sung-through pop operetta with plodding four-square rhythms and long stretches of rhymed recitative. The film's libretto accomplishes its expository duty with the joyless efficiency of a French peasant: “There was a time we killed the king/ We tried to change the world too fast/ Now we’ve got another king/ He’s no better than the last.” Every 20 minutes or so, a pop aria with a melody emerges from the sonic sludge, takes shape, then disappears again, soon to be brought back in multiple reprises. The most memorable of these songs (perhaps because it was implanted in our brains a few years ago by Britain’s Got Talent phenom Susan Boyle) is “I Dreamed a Dream,” a pipes-testing ode to self-pity here sung by Anne Hathaway.

So given that I’ve never seen a stage production of Les Misérables, am I still allowed to say that this show could surely have been done better justice than this movie does it? Displacing epic action and huge musical numbers from the stage to the screen would present a tricky problem for any director, but Hooper (whose last film was the small-scaled, Oscar-winning The King’s Speech) makes such jarringly discordant choices it’s hard to figure out what he’s even trying to do. I don’t know when I’ve seen a movie with a stranger sense of visual scale than Les Misérables. Though many scenes take place in spectacular (often in somewhat poorly rendered digitally augmented) locations—the halls of cathedrals, the hulls of huge ships, the barricades of 19th-century Paris—the viewer’s experience is always that of being trapped in a small room with someone singing 6 inches from your face. Hooper is in love with the low-angle close-up; his camera follows his actors around like a cocker spaniel, peering up adoringly at them and frequently launching itself in their faces. In especially heightened dramatic moments—the kind this musical strings together in a fairly unbroken crescendo—he’ll abruptly and inexplicably tilt the camera at a German Expressionist-style 45-degree angle.

There are very few performers who can pull off the trick of singing vocally demanding, hyper-dramatic solos while a movie camera inspects their nostrils. Hugh Jackman, as escaped-bread-thief-turned-upstanding-citizen Jean Valjean, is among those few. A longtime stage veteran who also knows his way around a movie set, he somehow calibrates his delivery so it’s just the right size for the awkward container Hooper has put him in. The songs may still sound tuneless and bombastic to my ears, but Jackman can not only sell this kind of material, he can sell it for twice its value. Thanks to his performance, I was able to overlook the sluggish libretto.

It is a hell of a plight, after all, as originally sketched in Victor Hugo’s 1,400-page historical novel: Sentenced to 19 years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family, the stolid, pious Valjean breaks parole upon his release and goes on to become a respectable small-town mayor under an assumed name. But he’s pursued through the decades by the unstoppable Inspector Javert (here played by Russell Crowe). Along the way, Valjean adopts Cosette (played as a child by Isabelle Allen, as a young woman by Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of a doomed prostitute, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), to whom Valjean once did an unintentional injustice. Eventually, Valjean and his adopted daughter will get caught up in the chaos of the 1832 Paris rebellion, as the grown Cosette falls for a rich-kid-turned-revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is in turn pined over by Eponine (Samantha Barks), a luckless innkeeper’s daughter. As Javert closes in on Valjean, the first shots of the resurgent revolution are fired and the barricades begin to rise …

Hooper’s decision to record the actors’ singing live on set (rather than having them lip-sync over their own prerecorded voices, as is the practice with most filmed musicals) lends some of the big singing scenes an unintended frisson of suspense, as the audience wonders “Oh God, is he going to be able to hit that note?” Most of the cast—Jackman and Barks are among the exceptions—aren’t professional singers, but that in itself doesn’t necessarily constitute a problem. I can be a fan of the karaoke-style Hollywood musical that allows for differing degrees of vocal talent (Hairspray, Across The Universe).

Amanda Seyfried is way out of her range as the soprano ingénue Cosette—she ends one love duet on an alarming octave-jumping squeal. Russell Crowe has been taking a lot of heat for his less-than-exceptional singing in Les Misérables, but when he’s not asked to do anything too
pyrotechnic, Crowe (who’s fronted a few of his own bands in Australia) can carry a tune well enough. A duet in which he and Jackman sing interweaving melody lines while dueling with a sword and a piece of wood does point up Crowe’s vocal shortcomings, but the bigger problem is his apparent discomfort in the role. He just seems stiff and awkward singing awful rhymed couplets in close-up; an understandable reaction, given how unpleasant the experience is on our side of the camera as well.

Anne Hathaway is far beyond the rest of Les Miserables’ production, and imbues her number with a special kind of power that, indeed, makes all the Oscar talk seem understandable. Her rendition of I Dreamed A Dream raised the hairs on the back of my neck. (A sure sign of greatness). The tight direction actually working in simpatico as Hathaway lays bear all her emotion. It's the only moment in the film that cuts to the core and resonates. Afterwards, it's essentially downhill from that point as the film never recovers from Hathaway's departure.

Everything is writ large. A love scene gets the CGI addition of a sparkling butterfly; a dying character falls back against a banner that helpfully reads "Mort." (Although the story itself is overdone - with not one, but two characters suddenly dying of Convenient Movie Disease.) Exaggerated, too, is the supposed comic relief, provided by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as a pair of thieving innkeepers. Neither has ever been accused of underselling a scene; here, they basically hold us down and shout in our faces. They're low points in the film, seeming refugees from "Sweeney Todd" (and Helena, please - give the fright-wigged characters a rest, would you?).

When Bob Fosse made "Cabaret," he completely re-imagined it for the screen. He threw out songs and added a song and the result was a classic film. Hooper, by contrast, essentially blows out the stage "Les Misérables" into a big gorgeous blockbuster, but it's a straight conversion, such that you can still see the act break. He doesn't account for inconvenient details, for example that on screen, it's not wise to play the same scene over and over (e.g., Javert shows up, Valjean escapes). Nor is it a good idea to have three ballads in a row.

Fans of "Les Misérables" wouldn't have minded if the movie were different, but better, or just as effective. The screen version demanded some re-conceiving, some vision to make sense of its existence. Instead, we're left with a film that is conscientious in all its particulars and yet strangely and mysteriously dead. That said, "Les Miserables" will no doubt strongly appeal to its target audience--if you loved it on the stage, you will probably at least like what has been done with it here. When all is said and done, however, this is a film that has all the necessary ingredients but lacks that final spark of inspiration to pull them all together into something memorable. It may be a little better than some naysayers might have feared that it would be but it is nowhere near as good as it could have been. Let me put it this way--I have seen numerous screen adaptations of "Les Miserables" over the years and this is one of them.
 

LES MISERABLES © 2013 Universal Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2013 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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