Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Les Miserables

I have been struggling, in the few days since I've seen the film version of Les Miserables to condense my feelings into an intelligent review without any success.  And then tonight I happened upon a review of the movie on one of my favorite websites, Television Without Pity, and was like YES - WHAT HE SAID! Author Ethan Alter pretty much captured EXACTLY my feelings on the movie so I'm going to borrow his brilliance and link to his excellent review and pull out some of the points that I most identified with.

First here's the review: Les Miserable review by Ethan Alter

For Drama Club nerds of a certain age, Les Misérables -- which premiered in London in 1985 and Broadway the year after that -- was likely a formative theater going experience, a mega-musical that married soaring anthems with elaborate stagecraft, giving it a grand sense of scale that blew the roof off the theater.
That would be me.  Les Miserable is one of my top two musicals of all time (Jesus Christ Superstar being in the mix).   I've seen it on stage several times at varying levels of production quality.  For kicks, my friend Chris and I would spontaneously re-enact Eponine's death scene during lunch breaks in High School.  So, yes, this is a show for which I have a special place in my heart.

Because the play already seemed so epic in its scope, it doesn't need the kind of "opening up" that a film normally allows for. And, in fact, the first thing you notice about the long-in the-works Les Miz movie, helmed by The King's Speech director Tom Hooper, is how small it feels compared to the stage show....The result is a film that never quite replicates the overwhelming artistry of the musical as it exists on the stage, but delivers on its emotional heft.
Since this show for me is all about the music and the emotions it evokes, it is really all about the performances.  So I totally agree with the above, that I was underwhelmed by a lot of the efforts the movie made as far as the dressing.  The sets, the "staging" delivered in the movie doesn't have the impact of the stage show but it was adequate and didn't matter too much because the performances and the way they are filmed are for the most part excellent.
I'll freely 'fess up to tearing up at several points throughout the movie, starting with Anne Hathaway's stirring rendition of one of the musical's most famous numbers, "I Dreamed a Dream." (That single scene -- which is filmed in one unbroken five-minute take -- is what will win her the Best Supporting Actress trophy come Oscar time, by the way.)
I'll freely 'fess up to crying my damn fool eyes out, a few times actually, but especially during Anne Hathaway's gut and heart wrenching performance.  I've seen a lot of reviews that have been quite cynical about Hathaway's pandering for an Oscar with her melodramatic performance and to that I say Pshaw!   This song is meant to express utter despair and, yes it is meant to do so in a hit you in the stomach, emotionally manipulative sort of way.  This is dramatic musical theater, People - there ain't nothing subtle about it.  Anne Hathaway gets this and hits it out of the park, down the street and into next week.  Bravo!
By contrast, Act 2, which mostly encompasses the barricade attack, is marked by long, dull stretches of narrative and a spottier collection of songs (the teen ennui anthem "On My Own" excluded, of course) before recovering with a rousing climax. And while Seyfried and Redmayne are both well cast as Marius and Cosette, there's no hiding the fact that the characters' blander-than-white-bread romance, another big second act storyline, is tedious in the extreme. (Let's just say there's a reason why everyone is Team Éponine -- the lovestruck daughter of the Thénardiers, played wonderfully here by Samantha Barks -- rather than Team Cosette.)
 I actually started to get a little squirmy by the end which hasn't happened in any of the theater productions I've seen.  I think the stage show is more dramatic so it sustains you through the weaker second half while the movie perhaps lacks some of that spark.  Yes, with the "On My Own" and Eponine and Samantha Barks love.  It's always puzzled me why the musical has emphasized this love triangle which makes the shows ultimate hero and heroine look like Mr. Douchbag and Lady Bland but I guess its meant to create pathos or something.  I have to say Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried did as good a job as possible in keeping me from waffling between hating and being dismissive of their two characters.  Redmayne's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is quite lovely.
...there's at least one major instance of miscasting in the form of Crowe, who has been handed what is arguably the musical's finest role and simply doesn't have the vocal chops to carry it off. It's not that Crowe can't sing, mind you... it's that he can't sing this particular character, who performs in a key that's out of his vocal range. Typically a brash, confident actor, the strain of this part is written all over Crowe's face throughout the movie; he's so busy trying to stay on key, he's unable to concentrate on his performance. Jackman fares better as Valjean, although Colm Wilkinson -- the actor who originated the role and who contributes a small cameo here -- has no need to worry about being usurped as the character's defining voice.
I also think Russell Crowe was miscast.  While I think he actually does okay with this final song, I thought he did a pretty terrible job with "Stars" which is one of the most beautiful and affecting songs of the show.   I also agree that Hugh Jackman did fine but not great.  His voice doesn't quite have the texture and variety I feel like Valjean needs and his voice started to grate a bit towards the end.
And yet, even with all these caveats, watching the movie I once again found myself caught up in the music and emotional sweep of Les Miz. Chalk it up to nostalgia or sense memory if you must, but I think Hooper and the cast do get at the beating heart of the play and ultimately provide the kind of cathartic experience that continues to make the show a favorite well after other spectacle-driven musicals (like Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard) have mostly vanished into Broadway history. You'll continue to hear these people singing in your head long after you leave the theater.
A perfect summation.  For the last several days I've frequently found myself humming or singing different songs from the show absently likes its on permanently loop on my brains music player.  I've seen a number of reviewers say this but it is I think the truth of the movie - if you come to it as a fan of the show you will most likely enjoy it but if it isn't your thing to begin with its not likely to convert you.

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