As a faithful rendering of a justly beloved musical, "Les Miserables" will more than satisfy the show's legions of fans. Even so, director Tom Hooper and the producers have taken a number of artistic liberties with this lavish bigscreen interpretation: The squalor and upheaval of early 19th-century France are conveyed with a vividness that would have made Victor Hugo proud, heightened by the raw, hungry intensity of the actors' live oncamera vocals. Yet for all its expected highs, the adaptation has been managed with more gusto than grace; at the end of the day, this impassioned epic too often topples beneath the weight of its own grandiosity.
The Universal release will nonetheless be a major worldwide draw through the holidays and beyond, spelling a happy commercial ending for a project that has been in development for roughly a quarter-century. Since its 1985 London premiere, the Cameron Mackintosh-produced tuner (adapted from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg's French production) has become one of the longest-running acts in legit history, outpaced on Broadway only by "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Cats." "Les Miserables" has aged far more gracefully than those two '80s-spawned perennials, owing largely to the lush emotionalism of Schoenberg's score, the timeless sentiments articulated in Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics, and the socially conscious themes, arguably more relevant than ever, set forth in Hugo's much-filmed masterwork.
In an intuitive yet bold scripting decision, scribes William Nicholson, Boublil, Schoenberg and Kretzmer have fully retained the show's sung-through structure, with only minimal spoken dialogue to break the flow of wall-to-wall music. Not for nothing is "Do You Hear the People Sing?" the piece's signature anthem; song is the characters' natural idiom and the story's lifeblood, and the filmmakers grasp this idea firmly enough to give the music its proper due. Even with some of the lyrics skillfully truncated, this mighty score remains the engine that propels the narrative forward.
In visual terms, Hooper adopts a maximalist approach, attacking the material with a vigor and dynamism that suggest his Oscar-winning direction on "The King's Speech" was just a warm-up. At every turn, one senses the filmmaker trying to honor the material and also transcend it, to deliver the most vibrant, atmospheric, physically imposing and emotionally shattering reading of the show imaginable. Yet the effect of this mammoth 158-minute production can be as enervating as it is exhilarating. Blending gritty realism and pure artifice, shifting from solos of almost prayerful stillness to brassy, clunkily cut-together ensemble numbers, it's an experience whose many dazzling parts seem strangely at odds.
The film's ambition is immediately apparent in a muscular opening setpiece that hints at the scope of Eve Stewart's production design: In 1815 Toulon, France, a chain gang labors to tow a ship into port. Among the inmates is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), overpunished for having stolen a loaf of bread nearly 20 years earlier, now being released on parole by Javert (Russell Crowe), the prison guard who will persecute him for years to come. With his scraggly beard, sunburnt skin and air of wild-eyed desperation, Valjean looks every inch a man condemned but, through the aid of a kind bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in 1985), vows in his soul-searching number "What Have I Done?" to become a man of virtue.
In this and other sequences, Hooper (again working with "Speech" d.p. Danny Cohen) opts to bring the camera close to his downtrodden characters and hold it there. It's a gesture at once compassionate and calculated, and it's never more effective than when it touches the face of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a poor, unwed mother ejected from Valjean's factory into the gutters.
Hathaway's turn is brief but galvanic. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," captured in a single take, represents the picture's high point, an extraordinary distillation of anguish, defiance and barely flickering hope in which the lyrics seem to choke forth like barely suppressed howls of grief. Hathaway has been ripe for a full-blown tuner showcase ever since she gamely sang a duet with Jackman at the Oscars in 2009, and she fulfills that promise here with a solo as musically adept as it is powerfully felt.
This sequence fully reveals the advantages of Hooper's decision to have the thesps sing directly oncamera, with minimal dubbing and tweaking in post. As carefully calibrated with the orchestrations (by Anne Dudley and Stephen Metcalfe) in Simon Hayes' excellent sound mix, the vocals sound intense, ragged and clenched with feeling, in a way that at times suggests neorealist opera. A few beats and notes may be missed here and there, but always in a way that serves the immediacy of the moment and the truth of the emotions being expressed, giving clear voice to the drama's underlying anger and advocacy on behalf of the poor, marginalized and misunderstood.
Hathaway's exit leaves a hole in the picture, which undergoes a tricky tonal shift as Valjean rescues Fantine's young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from her cruel guardians, the Thenardiers. Inhabited with witchy, twitchy comic abandon by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, not terribly far removed from the grotesques they played in "Sweeney Todd," these innkeepers amusingly send up their venal, disreputable and utterly unsanitary lifestyle in "Master of the House," a memorably grotesque number that also marks the point, barely halfway through, when "Les Miserables" starts to splutter.
As it shifts from one dynamically slanted camera angle to another via Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens' busy editing, the picture seems reluctant to slow down and let the viewer simply take in the performances. That hectic, cluttered quality becomes more pronounced as the story lurches ahead to the 1832 Paris student uprisings, where the erection of a barricade precipitates and complicates any number of subplots. These include Javert's ongoing pursuit of Valjean, their frequent run-ins seeming even more coincidental than usual in this movie context; the blossoming romance between Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) and young revolutionary leader Marius (Eddie Redmayne); and the noble suffering of Eponine (Samantha Barks), whose unrequited love for Marius is heartbreakingly exalted in "On My Own."
As the characters' voices and stories converge in the magisterial medley "One Day More," the frequent crosscutting provides a reasonable visual equivalent of the nimble revolving sets used onstage. Yet even on this broader canvas, the visual space seems to constrict rather than expand, and the sense of a sweeping panorama remains elusive. From there, the film proceeds through an ungainly pileup of gun-waving mayhem before unleashing a powerful surge of emotion in the suitably grand finale.
Devotees of the stage show will nonetheless be largely contented to see it realized on such an enormous scale and inhabited by well-known actors who also happen to possess strong vocal chops. The revelation here is Redmayne, who brings a youthful spark to the potentially milquetoast role of Marius, and who reveals an exceptionally smooth, full-bodied singing voice, particularly in his mournful solo "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables."
Jackman's extensive legit resume made him no-brainer casting for Valjean, and he embodies this sinner-turned-saint with the requisite fire and gravitas. Whether he's comforting the dying Fantine or sweetly serenading the sleeping Cosette (in the moving "Suddenly," a song written expressly for the screen), Jackman projects a stirring warmth and nobility. He's less at home with the higher register of Valjean's daunting two-octave range; there's more strain than soul in his performance of "Bring Him Home," usually one of the show's peak moments.
Crowe reveals a thinner, less forceful singing voice than those of his co-stars, robbing the morally blinkered Javert of some dramatic stature, although his screen presence compensates. Barks, a film newcomer wisely retained from past stagings, more than holds her own; Seyfried (who previously flexed her musical muscles in "Mamma Mia!") croons ever so sweetly as the lovely, passive Cosette; Aaron Tveit cuts a dashing figure as the impulsive student revolutionary Enjolras; and young Daniel Huttlestone makes a delightful impression as the street urchin Gavroche, bringing an impish streak of energy to the proceedings.
Les Miserables: Film Review from THR
A gallery of stellar performers wages a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea and a laboriously repetitive visual approach in the big-screen version of the stage sensation Les Miserables. Victor Hugo's monumental 1862 novel about a decades-long manhunt, social inequality, family disruption, injustice and redemption started its musical life onstage in 1980 and has been around ever since, a history of success that bodes well for this lavish, star-laden film. But director Tom Hooper has turned the theatrical extravaganza into something that is far less about the rigors of existence in early 19th century France than it is about actors emoting mightily and singing their guts out. As the enduring success of this property has shown, there are large, emotionally susceptible segments of the population ready to swallow this sort of thing, but that doesn't mean it's good.
The first thing to know about this Les Miserables is that this creation of Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, is, with momentary exceptions, entirely sung, more like an opera than a traditional stage musical. Although not terrible, the music soon begins to slur together to the point where you'd be willing to pay the ticket price all over again just to hear a nice, pithy dialogue exchange between Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe rather than another noble song that sounds a lot like one you just heard a few minutes earlier. There were 49 identifiable musical numbers in the original show, and one more has been added here.
Greatly compounding the problem is that director Hooper, in his first outing since conquering Hollywood two years ago with his breakthrough feature, The King's Speech, stages virtually every scene and song in the same manner, with the camera swooping in on the singer and thereafter covering him or her and any other participants with hovering tight shots; there hasn't been a major musical so fond of the close-up since Joshua Logan attempted to photograph Richard Harris' tonsils in Camelot. Almost any great musical one can think of features sequences shot in different ways, depending upon the nature of the music and the dramatic moment; for Hooper, all musical numbers warrant the same monotonous approach of shoving the camera right in the performer's face; any closer and their breath would fog the lens, as, in this instance, the actors commendably sang live during the shooting, rather than being prerecorded.
With Hooper's undoubted encouragement, the eager thespians give it their all here, for better and for worse. The “live” vocal performances provide an extra vibrancy and immediacy that is palpable, though one cannot say that the technique is necessarily superior in principle, as it was also used by Peter Bogdanovich on his famed folly, At Long Last Love.
One of the chief interests of the film is discovering the singing abilities of the notable actors assembled here, other than Jackman, whose musical prowess is well-known. Crowe, who early in his career starred in The Rocky Horror Show and other musicals onstage in Australia, has a fine, husky baritone, while Eddie Redmayne surprises with a singing voice of lovely clarity. Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean onstage in London and New York, turns up here as the benevolent Bishop of Digne.
On the female side, Anne Hathaway dominates the early going, belting out anguish as the doomed Fantine. Playing her grown daughter Cosette, Amanda Seyfried delights with clear-as-a-bell high notes, while Samantha Barks, as a lovelorn Eponine, is a vocal powerhouse.
The problem, then, is not at all the singing itself but that the majority of the numbers are pitched at the same sonic-boom level and filmed the same way. The big occasion when Hooper tries something different, intercutting among nearly all the major characters at crossroads in the Act 1 climax "One Day More," feels like a pale imitation of the electrifying "Tonight" ensemble in the film version of West Side Story.
It's entirely possible that no book has been adapted more frequently to other media than Hugo's epic, one of the longest novels ever written. About 60 big- and small-screen versions have been made throughout the world, beginning with a representation by the Lumiere brothers in 1897, and Orson Welles did a seven-part radio version in 1937. In 1985, five years after the Paris debut of the French musical, the English-language production, with a new libretto by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, opened in London, to less-than-stellar reviews, and is still playing. The New York counterpart packed houses from 1987-2003 and, at 6,680 performances, ranks as the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history (it reopened in 2006 and played another two years).
At the story's core is Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape and, upon his release, redeems himself under a new identity as a wealthy factory owner and socially liberal mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But his former prison guard Javert (Crowe), now a police inspector, finds him out and, over a period of 17 years, mercilessly hounds him until their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of June 1832.
Woven through it is no end of melodrama concerning Valjean raising Fantine's beautiful daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a tyke, Seyfried as a young woman); the latter's star-crossed romance with Marius (Redmayne), a wealthy lad turned idealistic revolutionary; his handsome comrade-in-arms Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the earthy Eponine, who woefully accepts that her beloved Marius is besotted by Cosette. Well and truly having rumbled in from the film version of Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen gallumph through as small-time swindlers in very broad comic relief.
Startlingly emaciated in his initial scenes while still on strenuous prison work detail, Jackman's Valjean subsequently cuts a more proper and dashing figure after his transformation into a gentleman. His defense of the abused Fantine and subsequent adoption of her daughter represent the fulcrum of Hugo's central theme that a man can change and redeem himself, as opposed to Jalvert's vehement conviction that once a criminal, always a criminal. The passions of all the characters are simple and deep, which accounts for much of the work's enduring popularity in all cultures.
But it also makes for a film that, when all the emotions are echoed out at an unvarying intensity for more than 2 1/2 hours on a giant screen, feels heavily, if soaringly, monotonous. Subtle and nuanced are two words that will never be used to describe this Les Miserables, which, for all its length, fails to adequately establish two critical emotional links: that between Valjean and Cosette, and the latter's mutual infatuation with Marius, which has no foundation at all.
Reuniting with his King's Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Eve Stewart, Hooper has handsome interior sets at his disposal. However, with the exception of some French city square and street locations, the predominant exteriors have an obvious CGI look. His predilection for wide-angle shots is still evident, if more restrained than before, but the editing by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens frequently seems haphazard; the musical numbers sometimes build to proper visual climaxes in union with the music, but as often as not the cutting seems almost arbitrary, moving from one close-up to another, so that scenes don't stand out but just mush together.
The actors are ideally cast but, with a couple of exceptions, give stage-sized turns for the screen; this bigness might well be widely admired. Jackman finally gets to show onscreen the musical talents that have long thrilled live musical theater audiences, Hathaway gamely gets down and dirty and has her hair clipped off onscreen in the bargain, and Redmayne impresses as a high-caliber singing leading man, but there is little else that is inventive or surprising about the performances. Still, there is widespread energy, passion and commitment to the cause, which for some might be all that is required.
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