Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Les Miserables

As a kid, I was obsessed with the musical Les Miserables.  When I finally saw it on stage as a high schooler, I was entranced.  The staging, the music, the passion--I loved it all.

Les Miserables tells the later-in-life story of Jean Valjean, played throughout the years by Hugh Jackman.  A parolee just getting out of prison after nineteen years, Valjean ultimately breaks parole, changing his identity and becoming quite successful.  He owns a factory and becomes mayor of a small town where, years later, the Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is assigned.  Javert recognizes Valjean from his years in prison.  Valjean must go on the run again, but not before he vows to help the daughter of dying former employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  Valjean runs, goes to get the daughter Cosette (played later by Amanda Seyfried), and raises her.  There are plenty of other story lines and characters to follow, and while the economy of characters leads to some unlikely coincidences and interactions, it's a story rich with emotion and (occasionally over-) dramatics.

When I heard there was a film version coming out of Les Mis, I was at first excited and then almost immediately dismayed, as how could it possibly live up to the stage version?  I braced myself for disappointment, just as I'd done for another widely anticipated December release in The Hobbit.

Ultimately, it was the right choice.  There are some things Les Miserables does quite well, but there are others that severely disappointed me.  To begin with, Tom Hooper was the wrong choice for director.  Hooper, who won the Best Director Academy Award for The King's Speech, fell into the same distracting tics like oddly tilted camera angles without purpose, extreme close-ups pushed to the corners of the screen, and lackluster blocking for songs like Bring Him Home and Stars.

He also encouraged quiet, almost whispered singing in several songs.  For some, like Fantine's I Dreamed A Dream, it works beautifully.  Fantine is a pathetic character at the end of her rope, after all.  At other times, however, it feels that Hooper won't just let his singers really sing.  It's not until halfway through the film when we meet the revolutionaries led by Enjaloras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (an impressive Eddie Redmayne) that we finally seem to meet the real, grandiose singers this story calls for.

Hugh Jackman does a fine, if not grand, job with Valjean.  Crowe often felt like he was so busy trying to sing right that he forgot to act--but admittedly, the boring, unmotivated blocking Hooper saddles him with doesn't help.  Redmayne and Seyfried do well with their generally less interesting characters.  In fact, as a general rule, the more recognizable the actor, the less impressive the singer.  The exception is Anne Hathaway, who may well be getting a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod out of the film.

It's possible that my purposely lowered expectations led me to be more critical of the film than others, but I couldn't help but feel that while it was pretty good, it could have been a lot better.

And don't get me started on the fact that the film's official soundtrack doesn't even include "Do You Hear The People Sing?"