Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012's Holiday Season's Obvious Oscarbait, Les Miserables Lives Up!

The Good: Mostly great acting, Decent music, Good cinematography, Great characters
The Bad: Eddie Redmayne is underwhelming, Pacing
The Basics: The latest cinematic version of Les Miserables may be an obvious grab for awards, but it is worth the accolades given the quality of this interpretation.

A year ago, there was much geeking out in my home. I was excited because of the earliest rumors and information about Prometheus (reviewed here!). My wife, on the other hand, was drooling over the information that was slowly leaking out about Les Miserables, one of her two favorite musicals. I figured I had the best of the year’s worth of anticipation; whether or not the epic I was enthusiastic about met my expectations, I would get a new Anne Hathway film on Christmas day. It was win-win for me (and I was one of the few who still loved Prometheus) and having to not wait until Christmas for new Anne Hathaway made it even better (if you want new Anne Hathaway now, check out the Funny Or Die video with her and Samuel L. Jackson online now!).

Les Miserables is a film based upon the play based upon the novel and it is worth noting that while I have seen the play or read the book, I have seen film and filmed versions of the play. I have also reviewed one of the celebrated soundtracks for the play (that review is here!) and my wife’s enthusiasm for it has certainly made me excited for it. However, I intend to limit this review to the Tom Hooper-directed Les Miserables that seems this season’s most obvious Oscarbait.

Unlike Chicago (reviewed here!) from a few years ago, Les Miserables is a musical that is presented as a film with its own reality. This is not a “play on film” like Chicago was. The musical interludes are a way to present emotions, exposition, and create mood, as opposed to intentionally replicating a theatrical (play) event. And, while Les Miserables is obvious Oscarbait, it manages not to fall into the same problem as Mystic River (reviewed here!) where there is predictable greatness. While I am tempted to say that anything that features Anne Hathaway is stacking the casting deck, the truth is she has a more extensive cinematic resume of romantic comedies, as opposed to deep dramas (though the dramas she has been in have been ones that show her easily able to handle an incredible range and a wide variety of situations). Moreover, Hugh Jackman has had some real cinematic lemons, as have Sacha Baron Cohen . . . and Russell Crowe is frequently typecast and used for a very limited range of character. Fortunately, on Les Miserables, the cast is used extraordinarily well and, with the exception of Redmayne, who is overshadowed in virtually every scene by his red-coated costar Aaron Tveit, in ways that they are not frequently captured on film.

Les Miserables is a story of one man’s struggles and strife amid the backdrop of the French Revolution. Having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his family, Jean Valjean is imprisoned for the crime and his attempt to flee prosecution. When Valjean, on parole after nineteen years of hard time, steals from the local bishop, the Bishop vouches for him to the authorities and Valjean is given a second chance to live right. Valjean becomes a respected citizen, mayor, and factory owner after years of being on the outside. Working at one of his factories is Fantine, a young woman who has turned to prostitution on the side in order to feed her baby daughter. Rescued from Inspector Javert following a conflict at Valjean’s factory, Fantine dies of tuberculosis.

Despite Valjean exposing himself to Javert to prevent an innocent man from being accused of being Valjean and having Javert’s wrath taken out on him, Valjean promises to return to Javert’s custody after he makes arrangements for Fantine’s daughter, Cosette. Valjean betrays Javert and takes Cosette on the run from the law. Years later, having raised Cosette as his own, revolution comes to France. Cosette finds herself embroiled in a love triangle with a revolutionary boy and Valjean has the chance to forgive Javert for a lifetime of pursuit when the revolutionaries are going to put Javert to death for being a spy.

Les Miserables is an epic and it is extraordinary. As a film, Les Miserables is presented by director Tom Hooper in a way that uses the medium exceptionally well. The locations are big and the sense of time passing is executed well on the actors, sets, and costumes. Keeping largely with the theatrical version, the cinematic Les Miserables includes comic relief in the form of the Thenardiers. While Madame Thenardier is well within the range or Helena Bonham Carter, her husband is portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen. Cohen does an impressive job of being more restrained than in most of his other roles and while he makes the role work, this rendition of Les Miserables doies not actually need that entire subplot and set of characters. In fact, while plays like Les Miserables judiciously mix humor and drama to keep from being too heavy and to allow for sets to be changed, in this version of Les Miserables, the presence of the Thenardiers is more distracting (though they do add another viewpoint on the Revolution) than necessary.

Musically, Les Miserables is enjoyable, though my wife informs me the soundtrack is altered some to fit the ranges of the performers (most notably Hathaway). As one not tied to the original play or soundtrack, I have to say it all sounded wonderful. Jackman makes for an amazing Jean Valjean in his vocalizations and Samantha Barks is wrenching as Eponine. Les Miserables sounds wonderful with the vocal performances that do add additional depth to the characters.

Russell Crowe did not wow me as Javert, but he fit the bill for in-character stiff in a way that worked surprisingly well. Javert is supposed to be obsessed and rigid in his determination to find Valjean and enforce law and order over any understanding of human emotions. Crowe fits the bill for that. Crowe presents Javert as somewhat robotic and he stands out next to how Anne Hathaway takes a bit role and fills it with hearthbreaking pathos or Jackman as Valjean, who is so good that he makes viewers forget how he ever growled his way through Wolverine. Even Amanda Seyfried is able to display uncommon range and emotion as Cosette that makes the character more than a simple love interest for Marius. Seyfried, Barks, Cohen, Hathaway and Jackman are so explosively dynamic that they shine so bright to make Crowe seem stiffer and blander by comparison.

Les Miserables is a cinematic musical that transcends its source material to use the film medium extraordinarily well. Hooper creates a distinct time, place and mood that feels appropriately epic. While “epic” is, by nature, long, great direction can keep such a film moving along. Unfortunately, Hooper misses some key marks – especially in keeping truer to the play by giving the Thenardiers their due – and the film feels long.

That said, Jean Valjean is presented as an intriguing and sufficiently deep character to invite the investment of time and energy in his journey. Les Miserables might be a long film telling a great story with interesting characters, released at the time of year as appropriate to get most of the people involved nominated for big awards, but it is worth it and enjoyable, even when it is heartbreaking for the way it portrays the depth of human suffering.

For works featuring Anne Hathaway, please check out my reviews of:
Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
The Dark Knight Rises
One Day
Love And Other Drugs
Family Guy Presents: It's A Trap!
Alice In Wonderland
Valentine's Day
Twelfth Night Soundtrack
Bride Wars
Rachel Getting Married
Get Smart
Becoming Jane
The Devil Wears Prada
Brokeback Mountain
The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
Ella Enchanted
Nicholas Nickleby
The Other Side Of Heaven
The Princess Diaries


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of my movie reviews!

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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