Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: Tom Hooper's Les Misérables

When it comes to the musical - a genre that, historically speaking, is one of my favourites - my tastes tend to lean more toward the Minnelli/Berkeley/Donan & Kelly camp than the Sondheim/Lloyd Weber/Cameron Mackintosh arena, so my adoration for this cinematic adaptation of Les Misérables, comes as much of a surprise to me as it does to anyone who knows me.  But, be that as it may, this film, directed by Tom Hooper, a director whose last film, the Oscar winning The King's Speech, left this critic more than a bit cold, seriously blew me away.  From Hooper's choice of framing his all-singing cast up close and personal, as if he were filming a musical homage to Sergio Leone, to the brazenly artificial CGI-created Parisian backgrounds, that create the most beautiful of cinematic frauds (and I mean that in the most complimentary manner), to Anne Hathaway's blow-them-outta-the-water belting out of "I Dreamed a Dream," an emotional powerhouse, single shot performance, that has all but assured the actress an Oscar, this musical extravaganza, though perhaps not quite in the realm of some of the better examples of those aforementioned Minnelli/Berkeley/Donan & Kelly campers, is easily one of the finest films of the year.

The story, based, of course, on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel about the most miserable of French citizenry (and for the uninitiated, if you are looking for a feel-good movie experience, you might want to look elsewhere), was first turned into a stage musical in France in 1980, before becoming a hit on the London stage in 1985, and eventually a Broadway smash in 1987.   Now, nearly five years after its final Broadway bow (the show is still going strong in London's West End), producer Cameron Mackintosh (also known for such "minor" hits as Cats, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera) has teamed up with Tom Hooper, to recreate the magic that filled those past 7,176 Broadway, and 10,000 plus London performances.  And to accomplish this, director Hooper has filled his show with both the biggest wigs of Hollywood hitdom and the sadly unknown, but quite resonate forces of the Broadway and London stages, because no matter what Hooper does with his camera, o matter what he may do in the editing room or in post production, the movie either plummets or soars by the vocal and acting abilities of its cast - all of whom do their own singing, and most of whom do said singing, unlike in most musical films, live on camera - and, aside from a few rather lackluster moments (which do not deteriorate the enjoyment all that much, but we will get into that in a bit), the film does indeed soar.

Hugh Jackman, always the triple threat (quadruple if you include his adamantium claws), takes on the über-heavyweight role of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to nineteen years at hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread (well, five years, but with time added on for escape attempts).  Jackman's voice is something of a laudable stage presence, and that shines through here.  Sure, he may not be tapdancing his way about the stage like a cheeky new millennial Fred Astaire (his musical strength), but he more than holds his own, in both vocal range and acting depth, in the tragically iconic role.  We even get a glimpse of Colm Wilkinson, West End and Broadway originator of that very same tragically iconic role, in a cameo appearance as a kind-hearted bishop who rescues Valjean's body and soul.  As for Russell Crowe, as Javert, the prison guard turned inspector who spends his life tracking down Valjean after the ex-prisoner changes his identity and makes a new life for himself, the tough guy actor may not have the chops of Jackman, but his more rocker-like voice plays well enough for us to keep listening.  But, as I more than alluded to earlier, it is Hathaway, in the role of the fateful Fantine, struggling single mother who is forced into prostitution, is the stand-outiest of all the stand-outs in Hooper's musical motion picture.  Hathaway, who between her few scenes, is only on the screen for about fifteen or twenty minutes, if even that, hands in one of the most emotionally cathartic performances in a long long time, and it is this performance, this character, that is the veritable tragic crux of the film.

Granted, the film does lose some of its momentum, some of its passion, when we see Cosette, the now grown daughter of Fantine, as played by the rather underwhelming Amanda Seyfried, but the character, though quite important in tying all the separate threads together, is probably the least interesting character in the bunch anyway, and these momentary slips into such lackluster territory, are not near enough to bring down an otherwise quite strong film.  Jackman and, especially Hathaway, are more than enough to keep this revolutionary ship afloat.  Add to them, performances by Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a student protester and lovesick squire of Cosette; Aaron Tveit, stage star, and Gossip Girl regular, as Enjolras, leader of the revolutionaries; Samantha Barks, who makes her film debut by reprising her West End role of Éponine, cruel but ultimately self-sacrificing former playmate of Cosette; and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Éponine's unscrupulous parents and roguish con artists, and you have yourself one hell of a musical.  Powerful, emotional, tragically beautiful (if ya don't cry, then ya ain't human), Tom Hooper's adaptation of Schönberg and Boubill's adaptation of Hugo's classic novel, is much much greater than this critic was ever expecting.  The last ten minutes or so, are enough to make even the sturdiest of constitutions break down in fits of weeping despair - and yet the whole thing is such a gorgeous spectacle, one cannot possibly come out of it without a bounce in their step as well.

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