Here in Canada, when kids of my era were growing up, it was a mandatory class field trip to see the stage version of Les Misérables. I recall going to the musical at least three times in the '90s, and it was a veritable treat of song (they said "shit!") and pomp. It also appealed to me because there are several children in the story, and, of course, as Canadians, we're expected to learn French from a young age -- finally, here was a play that actually featured the language prominently.
So I wondered: could director Tom Hooper successfully adapt all of those childhood excitements into his 2+ hour film? Could Victor Hugo's marvelous tome (finally) carry over to the big screen? Other directors had relatively unsuccessfully tried before him, so had Hooper found the magic sauce -- the crème fraîche, if you will -- to make the perfect movie meal?
The short answer is: yes and no. While there are several aspects of the movie that provide pleasure, there are far more parts that provoke yawns and heavy eyelids. The film itself is trying so hard to reach that epic, Oscar-worthy level, it inevitably stumbles on its way to the goal. You have to hand it to the cast, though: I don't know if I've ever seen such an earnest group of singers/actors in my life -- their protruding jugulars from start to finish are a testament to their efforts. The passion is there, but unfortunately, much like we learn through Les Misérables epic tale, we can try as hard as we want to reach the unreachable, but sometimes it just isn't meant to be.
The movie starts out in a mesmerizing fashion: we swoop in to meet convict protagonist Jean Valjean as he slaves away (quite literally) on board a ship. The overture plays and we're treated to the first tune, 'Work Song.' Hugh Jackman as Valjean, astonishingly gaunt and almost unrecognizable, is brilliant; his years of Broadway experience are evident as his voice booms and carries. The only problem is that this in turn makes all the other actors without stage experience stand out like sore thumbs. Case in point: Russell Crowe. As villain/obsessive nemesis Javert, his baritone is flat and unnecessarily loud. A colleague of mine compared him to a child performing in his first-ever solo role: arms rigidly planted at his sides, face-forward, that look of ingrained fear in his eyes as he stares into the spotlight. It seems as if poor Crowe bit off more than he could chew, but hey, at least he's trying. Hard.
Anne Hathaway (as Fantine) also falls into this category. We meet her shortly after Valjean proclaims that he's a new man (after escaping Javert's clutches and being given a "second chance" by a priest), and he takes it upon himself to rescue Fantine and her infant child, Cossette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried). Critics are lauding Hathaway's performance as brilliant, fantastic, and every other positive, glowing descriptor known to man, and I'm not saying her brief solos aren't well-sung, but just because an actress shaves her head and sings a well-known musical tune, with snot, tears and the whole bit, doesn't automatically qualify it as an Oscar-winning performance. With nowhere near the power of Jackman's voice, Hathaway is adequate as Fantine, but not the earth-shattering juggernaut that most critics will have you believe.
Somewhere around the quarter-mark,we're introduced to innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who both inject much-needed humour and levity into the movie. As in the stage musical, the Thénardiers are absolutely necessary in terms of adding colour to the greyness of the subject matter. All of their scenes instantly became my favourites, and Cohen in particular is magnetic -- the role goes a long way in illustrating that he should never, ever be pigeonholed into Borat-type characters.
As the movie plods on and we get into the French Revolution storyline, it completely unravels and turns into a collection of seemingly never-ending songs with repetitive verses and choruses. It is clear that what works on stage doesn't adequately translate to screen. Hooper tries his damndest, though, by moving the camera within inches of each actor's face, probably in an attempt to make the proceedings more intimate, as if you were watching the play. At some points, you can literally count the pores on Jackman's nose, or see the bubble of mucous forming on the bottom of Hathaway's nostril. It is distracting, to say the least, and at times disturbing and nauseating.
With so much focus on the individual song performances, much of the intensity of the love story is lost. The triangle between Cosette, Marius (a sincere Eddie Redmayne) and Éponine (an impressive Samantha Barks) seems to materialize out of thin air, and their passions are never fully explained. It seems that, in order to get the singing on par with the stage, Hooper and his cast neglected the very thing they're paid to do: direct and act. The script suffers, too, and at the obvious midpoint after a rousing 'One Day More,' I was thirsting for an Intermission. A Pavlovian response from my childhood, no doubt.
True fans of Les Misérables will either thoroughly enjoy this rendition or tolerate it (as I have). Anyone unfamiliar with the play probably won't even bother. Somewhere at the core of the movie the heart of the musical is there, strong and beating, but sometimes it's better left to stage.
(Note: Daniel Huttlestone, who plays mischievous Gavroche, is worth pointing out. He steals every scene he's in and once again shows that stage experience -- the boy has performed in musicals and plays, and even recently played Gavroche in the London version -- is key to movie adaptations.)
'Les Misérables' opens in theaters on Christmas Day.
Branded as Prisoner 24601, Valjean is released from a 19-year sentence and, determined to leave his past behind, ditches parole. He eventually becomes a successful businessman and the mayor of a small town, until his life is turned upside down again when he adopts Cosette, the daughter of one of his former workers, Fantine. He spends the rest of his days trying to hide his history from Cosette while also trying to reconcile his mistakes with himself and God. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “What Have I Done?” Faced with a shot at salvation, Valjean wonders if he’s worthy, ultimately deciding to take the plunge into the spiritual and physical unknown. “Jean Valjean is nothing now,” he sings. “Another story must begin.” <strong>Runner-up:</strong> “Bring Him Home” Valjean, realizing his daughter is in love with Marius, prays to God for Marius’ safekeeping before the students begin their fight. Some of the sweetest falsetto you’ll ever hear.
Inspector Javert, who oversaw Valjean’s work in prison, will stop at nothing to find 24601, hunting the parole dodger for decades. Their game of cat and mouse consumes both of their lives, and Javert’s frustration mounts at every turn. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Stars” While summing up the pious motivation behind Javert’s search for Valjean, “Stars” also hints at Javert’s dogged determination and overwhelming obsession – strengths which ultimately prove to be his greatest weaknesses. <strong>Runner up:</strong> “Soliloquy” Since the song’s other name is a bit of a spoiler, we’ll just say: The musical isn’t called “Les Miserables” for nothing. A goose bump-inducing gut-punch.
A factory worker who sends her wages to the couple caring for her daughter, Cosette, Fantine is eventually fired when the foreman finds out. Destitute and desperate, Fantine sells her locket, her hair and finally her body. When she succumbs to illness, she pleads with Valjean to take care of Cosette. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “I Dreamed a Dream” “I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living,” Fantine sings in this heartbreaker, embodying the disappointment that has come to define her existence.
Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, has been sent to live with the innkeeper Thenardier and his wife. Forced to wear rags and do the couple’s every bidding, Cosette’s life is forever changed when Valjean comes knocking. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Castle on a Cloud” Sweet and simple, Cosette fantasizes about a magical place where childhood is happy.
The innkeeper Thenardier and his wife care for Fantine’s daughter Cosette, but treat her more like a slave than a daughter. The family eventually goes on to lead a gang of street robbers in Paris, where Thenardier gleefully picks the pockets of students slain in the uprising. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Master of the House” Thenardier bills himself as a luxury hotelier while outlining the increasingly-outrageous ways in which he cheats his guests. This show-stopper is the comedic highlight of the musical.
Thenardier’s wife and the worst surrogate mother imaginable to Cosette, Madame Thenardier is quick with a comeback and eager to take her husband down a peg. When Valjean arrives to take Cosette away, she drives a hard bargain to wring money out of him. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Master of the House” Madame asserts herself as a great foil to her blustering husband, calling him a bastard and a louse, among other pet names.
Now living in Paris with Valjean, Cosette meets Marius, a young student revolutionary. It’s love at first sight, but Cosette is torn between her attraction to Marius and her devotion to her father, whose mysterious past has been a constant source of curiosity. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “In My Life” Cosette is growing up, and Valjean isn’t ready to let go.
A student whose friends are preparing for the Paris Uprising against the government, Marius is distracted by Cosette, falling in love with her instantly. With the threat of separation looming over the couple’s heads, Marius decides to join his friends at the barricade. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” Haunting and heart-wrenching, Marius mourns his lost comrades, begging them to forgive “that I live and you are gone.”
The daughter of the Thenardiers, Eponine is friends with Marius, with whom she’s hopelessly in love. Despite those feelings, she helps unite Marius and Cosette, and even thwarts her father’s band of robbers from breaking into Cosette and Valjean’s home. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “On My Own” The perfect representation of unrequited love, with just the slightest hint of hope thrown in. Eponine’s not fooling anyone, least of all herself -- but it’s nice to pretend. <strong>Runner-up:</strong> “A Little Fall of Rain” Alternative title: “Too Little, Too Late, Marius.” Simultaneously sad and gorgeous.
The leader of a group of student revolutionaries fighting for the rights of the poor, Enjolras is idealistic and enthusiastic about the upcoming uprising. He rallies his fellow students, including head-in-the-clouds Marius. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Red and Black” Summing up both his selflessness and the point of the fight, Enjolras explains to Marius, “We strive towards a larger goal. Our little lives don’t count at all.”
A street urchin who lives in the slums of Paris, young Gavroche is tougher than he looks. Despite his age and size, he joins up with the student revolutionaries. <strong>Signature song:</strong> “Little People” Gavroche figures out the identity of Javert, who tries to infiltrate the students’ camp as a mole.
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