Friday, January 4, 2013


Can the new filmed musical version of Les Miserables really be as awful—or as great—as everybody says? Your intrepid reporter decided to find out!

Most of what I dislike about the movie has to do with the property itself (which I come to as a virgin, having never seen it onstage). I'm not a big fan of the nouveau-operetta format, revived in the spectacle era of Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera, etc. I prefer spoken dialogue between separate (hopefully catchy) songs; too much exposition written into the music makes it that much more difficult to sing, or for the audience to remember.

Director Tom Hooper had the audacious idea to film his actors singing live on-camera in the moment, not lip-synching to their own pre-recorded songs. This is largely to replicate the experience of live theater (where there are no retakes), and it does bring a sense of immediacy to certain scenes. (I think it also necessitates all the close-ups some viewers are complaining about; in the theater, an actor can prowl the stage, but a film actor—especially singing live—better stay put if he wants to remain properly lit and in focus.) But at other times, the demands of the music run away with the storytelling.

The opening scenes, for instance, feature two gigantic, en masse singing numbers— the convicts hauling a ship on their ropes, and the factory women at their tables—that are impossible to understand, the lyrics as muddy as the bottom of the Seine. In the latter case, since I couldn't hear the words, I really never got why all the factory women suddenly turn against Fantine, which is sort of a key plot point.

(For that matter, women in general fare poorly as characters in this decidedly male world of cons, cops, and idealistic student protestors. Yes, Fantine is an angel, but her grown daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), is a a bland, blonde confection with no personality at all, whose love at first sight (yawn) with a man she's never even spoken to is supposed to fuel the entire final third of the plot. And let's not even discuss the innkeeper's wife played by Helena Bonham Carter as a comic-relief grotesque.)

(As a group, females are either shrewish factory workers, cruel prostitutes, or cowardly citizens who turn their backs and bar their shutters to the stalwart young male revolutionaries when the gendarmes arrive. The only other femme character with any grit and chutzpah at all is Samantha Barks' Eponine—and look what happens to her!)

On the plus side, here are my three favorite things about the movie.

One: Hugh Jackman. He gives a towering, exhaustive performance as Jean Valjean. The muddied, exposition-heavy music doesn't always show his voice off to best advantage (and musical theater veteran Jackman has a great singing voice), but he sings with clarity and gusto throughout, delivers the goods emotionally, and gives the movie a pulse from its very first scene to its last.

Two: Anne Hathaway's raw, heartbreaking performance as displaced factory worker and unwed mother, Fantine. The devastating power of her ragged "I Dreamed A Dream," not only shows how Hooper's live-singing device is supposed to work, but provides the film with its one memorable song/theme—not to mention its dramatic highlight.

Three: Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Shut up! He's perfectly cast as the implacable lawman, and his no-frills, serviceable, workmanlike singing voice is exactly the right shape and color you'd expect from rough-hewn Javert .

Eddie Redmayne also sings well as Marius, scion of a wealthy Parisian family swept up in the events of the June Rebellion, but, as noted above, his ad hoc love story with Cosette is probably the least interesting aspect of the entire 157-minute enterprise. Oh, and did I mention that it's realllllly long?

There are moments when various characters are singing in counterpoint to each other onscreen where it all falls into place—music, resonant emotion and spirit. ("One Day More" is genuinely thrilling.) But for all Hooper's clever filming tricks and techniques, he can't sustain that level of engagement for as long as it takes the entire lumbering beast to unspool.

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