Monday, December 24, 2012

Hear the People Sing: LES MISÉRABLES

It took long enough to get Les Misérables on the big screen, at least when you’re talking about Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s beloved long-running (nearly 30 years) stage musical based on the hefty Victor Hugo novel. I’ll leave the comparisons of stage to screen to those who have actually encountered this production before, but as one whose first exposure to the musical comes through this film, I must say that, despite some reservations I’ll definitely mention, the film works. I can see why so many have such strong feelings about the source material. This is a sturdy, often stirring Hollywood musical of the kind that won’t win over any reluctant naysayers or those unlikely to either accept or ignore director Tom Hooper’s tendency to shoot everything in wide angle close-ups, but is sure to satisfy some of us who roll our eyes whenever Carol Reed’s altogether delightfully square literary musical Oliver! turns up in lists of Oscar “mistakes.”

If nothing else, Tom Hooper (who rode his last film, the even squarer The King’s Speech, to Oscar glory) has adapted Les Misérables in a way that’s determinedly earnest. It’s the kind of movie where characters are constantly having their lives turned upside down by momentous emotion and revelations happen in the blink of an eye. One glance and you’re the most in love you’ve ever been with a girl you just met. Receive one kind gesture and a criminal is instantly a better man, or an authority figure is instantly conflicted about his duty. Hooper underplays some of this quite nicely, but that will bury motivations from time to time. (There are a few character moments that left me lost.) Had the film been under the direction of a flashier, more competent visual stylist, there might have been an embrace of some of the more swoony elements in a way that could have led to greater clarity. Still, Hooper has been handed strong material and he’s smart enough not to mess it up.

The story, set in the mid-1800s, starts with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who skips out on parole and, with inspiration from a kind priest, decides to start a new life as an honorable man. Too bad, then, that after several years of successful remaking, the policeman long in pursuit, Javert (Russell Crowe), eventually catches up.  This story crosses paths with Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is tragically unemployed and sickly, barely able to provide the money she needs to send to her very young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who has been left at a boarding house run by a couple of careless cons (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). Valjean promises Fantine that he’ll find the girl and make sure she’s taken care of. He does, but one step ahead of Javert, he and the girl flee. He starts over yet again. 

The plot picks up years later in Paris, where the frustrated public, among them idealistic students Marius and Éponine (Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks), plan a revolution. All of the other characters are in the general vicinity of the conflict as well, leading to Marius glimpsing Cosette (now grown into Amanda Seyfried) and deciding that he’s in love. Good thing she decides in the same instant that she loves him too, no matter how protective her adopted father is. And we haven’t even gotten to the revolution yet! This is a tragedy and a romance with an epic historical sweep that finds along the way menace and kindness, humor and heartbreak, romance and retribution. There’s lots of plot packed into a quick (relatively speaking, I suppose) two-and-a-half hours, leading to some moments where I was intellectually moved by the proceedings without getting my heart involved. There’s just no downtime here as we hurry from peak to peak and I felt a bit of a burden to fill in the gaps myself. And yet, this is sometimes powerful, always hardworking storytelling that soars on the back of memorable sung-through melodies and motifs.

Rarely stopping to catch a breath, the characters sing their hearts out. Hooper has one or two good ideas on how to capture the performances. First, there’s the live singing. Unlike most movie musicals, which record the vocal performances separately, leaving the actors room to maneuver through the scenes and dances without worrying about hitting all the right notes while filming, Hooper captured the singing right then and there on set. This results in many stirring moments of musical cinema in which characters are raw and emotive in ways that sound spontaneous. You can hear characters straining at times, warbling away from big notes when a swell of emotion chokes them up, weeping through swallowed notes or swelling with prideful energy. The singing is undoubtedly rough around the edges at times, but the cast does a fine job nonetheless. I was surprised how moved I was by Jackman’s clipped, half-swallowed bubbling in his most dramatic moments.

Hooper’s second good idea helps the cast’s singing as well. When the constantly swirling melodies part to let a character step forward and sing a solo soliloquy, his restless camera stops to capture the song in steady shots that keep the performance in close frames that regard the emotion that plays out with the notes. These moments could have failed a weaker cast, but here they are simple and effective. When Banks sings of unrequited love in “On My Own,” when Redmayne mourns in “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” and when Jackman sings his epiphany in “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” the effect is a rather lovely work of cinematic theatricality, putting us not just front row, but on the stage for a terrific feat of musical acting. The clear standout sequence of this kind is Hathaway’s astonishing performance of what has to be the musical’s most well known number, the heartbreaking “I Dreamed a Dream.” It plays out in more or less one shot, each note a twist of the knife in this character’s sad trajectory.

Though the film feels so big with production design that feels like heightened grubby realism and soaring music that helps fill the frames with operatic emotions, Hooper’s closeness occasionally makes the whole thing feel small and cramped. (You wouldn’t really want to sit on the stage to watch the show now, would you?) He’s not a particularly visual director and when he’s called upon to manage a small group number – “At the End of the Day,” say, or especially with “Master of the House” – the shots don’t add up. When it comes to matching rousing unison and harmonies with nimble visual compositions to match, he’s not up to the task. Here he breaks with his old-fashioned material and old-fashioned approach for the sake of a misguided method of keeping editing choppy and shots close and ill framed. There’s a sense that he’s trying to stay away from precisely the bigness and exaggeration that makes the best movie musicals work so well. It doesn’t work for the material here, but it’s something that one can learn to overlook if determined to ride the emotion underlying it all.

After all, there’s a great story here, or at least so I gather. Some of the rushed storytelling left me scratching my head and the pacing in the final half hour or so goes strangely slack, but the broad strokes of pain, romance, and tragic revolution resonate well. The performers sell each and every big moment, a great cast, singing memorable, endlessly hummable tunes. Less a great movie, more a movie in which you can find greatness, Les Misérables is never better than when its director can get out of his own way. 

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