Friday, December 28, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

It's a little odd to spend $61 million to make a movie--with much of that likely going into lavish set construction--and then spend so much time in tight, shaky closeups of the warbling cast.  The effect is not unlike "The Hurt Locker" with show tunes.  And there is definitely something cringeworthy about Russell Crowe's vocals.  He's not a terrible singer, per se, but he booms in a manner akin to an adolescent being forced to sing in the church choir.

Having said that, the film incarnation of "Les Miserables" is competent and entertaining as a whole.  For those whose girlfriends/wives never dragged them to the stage musical, "Les Miserables" is an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel of the same name.  It takes place in 19th century France and centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict paroled after a nineteen-year sentence for stealing bread and attempted escape.  Embittered, hungry, and marked as a criminal, Valjean turns to theft to feed himself, until the kindness of a bishop inspires him to start his life anew as a good and charitable man.  This includes saving Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman-turned-prostitute to whose misfortune Valjean unwittingly contributed.  Later, Valjean adopts Fantine's orphaned daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and later Amanda Seyfried), and resides with her in Paris as a second revolution brews among the poor and local students.  Always in pursuit of Valjean is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean's former jailer whose rising through the police ranks fatefully brings him into Valjean's path many times over the years. Javert pursues Valjean for no other reason than that he broke parole and is a criminal and therefore cannot be redeemed.

The best musical performance is hands-down Anne Hathaway's sorrowful rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".  She has said that she practiced singing whilst crying to nail the emotion of the scene, and the effect is heartbreaking.  Given Dame Judi Dench's Oscar win for her eight-minute role in "Shakespeare in Love", it is not implausible that Hathaway will pick up a nod this year.

This is definitely a case where the lack of an intermission in which to use the restroom and gulp a merlot at the bar causes the story to drag a little bit.  While the script is faithful to the musical, there are a few moments during the a few of the ballads where one starts to feel numb in the backside and wishful for a sword fight or a riot to liven up the mood.

The main issue that this writer had is the wasted potential for grandiose delivery.  It is arguable that Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper sacrifices spectacle for emotional intimacy, and that what worked in "The King's Speech" is a little awkward here.  Maybe no one told Hooper he had four times the budget of that movie to play with here.  Also, many of the performances teeter on the edge of melodrama.

Overall, though, Tom Hooper's "Les Miserables" is an often rousing and eventually soaring tale of love, liberty, and the pursuit of criminal fugitives.

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