Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Misérables

Ageless Persecution, Followed By Theatrical Revolution

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper's musical drama "Les Misérables".  Universal Pictures


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, December 27, 2012

"Les Misérables", Tom Hooper's grand, majestic showcase of epic proportions based on Victor Hugo's novel and the hit Broadway musical by Boublil and Schönberg, is a towering, invigorating production.  The classic story of the decades-long persecution of Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, resonates on the big screen in an unmistakable way.  The film set in 19th century France, opens with an unrecognizable Hugh Jackman as Valjean, escaping the harsh rigors of time as prisoner 24601 to later become the mayor of Paris as he tries to evade the clutches of Inspector Javert, his relentless pursuer.

Rough, rugged and robust, "Les Misérables" is a spectacle that grabs you from the word go.  Its musical numbers are strong, and as you would expect in a musical, most of the film's dialogue is sung.  Unusually, most, if not all of the actors, sang live on the set as the film was shot, and this makes the drama and acting more fluid, spontaneous and theatrical.  This all inures to the benefit of Mr. Jackman, a stage actor who effortlessly synthesizes his acting with powerful, resonant vocals.  Conversely, Mr. Crowe is a significant let down in the production, as his singing voice doesn't elevate to the heights this lofty, rousing film requires.  As Javert Mr. Crowe is a wooden figure: all bite and no bark.  "Les Misérables" loses some credibility whenever Mr. Crowe opens his mouth to serenade the audience.  You can hear him trying too hard, and there's no force behind his imperious persona.

Be that as it may, there are many effective performers to overcome Mr. Crowe's shortcomings.  Eddie Redmayne is particularly good, pushing the film's energy level to ever-greater heights during much of its second and third hours.  Mr. Redmayne, a better actor than he's given credit for, electrifies with his passion and vulnerability as Marius, a man in love but forsaking a love, namely Éponine (played wonderfully by Samantha Barks) in the process.  "Les Misérables", an intense experience, is vibrant enough to rise above its melancholic story, and because most of the actors (save a disappointing Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried) are impeccable and enthralling, the range and diversity is there to carries audiences through the thematic material.

Since the film has the credentials of a smash-hit Broadway play preceding it, "Les Misérables" is likely to be loved by those who loved the musical, the original Broadway production of which I saw in the late 1980s.  That was an unforgettable experience, a theatre performance that stayed with me for many months afterward.  Mr. Hooper's drama has its own potency, and there's a mix of guts and grace in his direction of a vast array of figures.  There's an industry amidst camaraderie and choreography that figures prominently in carefully packaged scenes that contrasts antagonism with the amiable.  On a surface level much of "Les Misérables" is about the ability to dance and sing through pain, and at times the film is more opera than anything else.  Unlike "Anna Karenina", "Les Misérables" is theatrical without being self-conscious of its stage.

In its joyous, throaty fervor, Mr. Hooper's drama hurls itself at you unapologetically.  The experience the director displays on screen is charged with emotion, lyrical beauty and tension that bleeds through the eyes and heart of Mr. Jackman's superb work as Valjean.  If Daniel Day-Lewis gave the year's best lead male performance in "Lincoln", Mr. Jackman can't be too far behind, and I have a sneaky feeling that Academy voters will award the Australian with his first Oscar next February.  The sheer range of Mr. Jackman's work in this film -- he carries "Les Misérables" on his shoulders -- is impactful.  He engineers a vulnerable, voluble performance, making Valjean a multi-faceted figure, and has the same accumulative gravitas that Adrien Brody had in a similarly busy performance in "The Pianist", for which he won Oscar (over Mr. Day-Lewis) in 2003.

There's a magnetism about "Les Misérables" that cannot be denied, and Mr. Hooper pushes his actors to demolish any boundaries or handicaps that Broadway musicals face when constrained in big screen trappings.  Andrew Lloyd Webber's "The Phantom Of The Opera" suffered such a fate years ago, but Mr. Hooper's purposeful staging -- a mix of digital detail with ingenious production design -- keeps the spirit and heart of "Les Misérables" as alive as ever.

Also with: Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone.

"Les Misérables" opened on Christmas Day across the U.S. and Canada.  The film is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.  The film's running time is two hours and 37 minutes.  

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