Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Les Miserables

The towering, monstrous immensity of Tom Hooper's adaptation of the much beloved mega-musical Les Miserables is a heady gamble, not just a big Hollywood enterprise with hopes of entertaining holidays audience onward to shiny trophies, but a filmmaker whose never shown this type of magnitude and an ensemble cast who risk foolery in an all sung rock opera based on a dense, 19th century novel.  The musical extravaganza began in the mid-1980s alongside other sprawling wannabe historical piece big ticket items like The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in a boom of spectacle theater.  And like many of those shows and their copycats, the libretto of Les Miserables-- credited by Claude Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil-- has murkier elements in trudging through the thick narrative played out by Hugo over a hundred years prior.  The stage production and the movie follow the nearly Homeric journey of a man of ruins and tragedy and the poverty, disparity and sadness that surrounds; or a operatic path of the horrors of Revolution.  Throughout there's episodic drifts and detours, supporting players up front and forgotten, but the massiveness of the show belongs in the emotional capacity in which it connects the tragic and forlorn.  In this respect, Tom Hooper's Les Miserables is a feast, a moving and immerse cinematic expression, at once brave and square, an all sung through (sung live in fact) canvas of the human spirit maximized into grandiose entertainment.

The most jarring and I would reflect as the most controversial artistic choice Hooper makes in his Les Miserables, is that the film is shot entirely in close-up.  A staple and trait that will could and should read claustrophobic, especially for a film with a rich exterior layer that nearly leaves its superficial eye candy in the shadow, but what do you know the trick, the novelty, the whatever, works.  It bridges the material, the songs, the performances and the dusted off cobwebs of historical porn and vulnerably and compassionately makes the songs pop, the performances richer and emotion aching-- too aching at times, one might argue.  Hooper, who used a similar framing for his Academy Award winning The King's Speech, lurches and demands with an intrinsic immediacy and demand that his Les Miserables be felt, not examined.  And just as the opening cues squarely focus on Hugh Jackman's anti-hero convict Jean Valjean, Hooper nearly achieves the conviction of his emotional quest and as the film moves forward, especially in the note-perfect first section, it would be hard pressed to do nothing but feel Les Miserables.

Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf bread years ago, toils away in manual labor-- watched obsessively by the by-the-rules Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who nearly fetishizes over not just his nearly sub-human strength, but willful act of defiance.  As fans of the musical (and the book?) know the cat and mouse game between Valjean and Javert is nearly the bulk of the massive material, creating a personal account of revolutionary versus lawman as the country of France is falling into a seismic feud of its own.  Hooper, just as musical, doesn't bog itself down in commentary or politics, instead focusing on the richness and the heart of it's characters teared at their seams.  As Valjean is set free, forever doomed by the moniker 24601, foiled by uncertainty, he finds a new life of decency years later a mayor.  Jackman, famously a musical theater star whose movie star sheen has until now really been relegated to Wolverine, is volcanic in a role that thrives on his musical abilities, but jells and bounces with the actorly conviction he brings to it.  Jackman hides away his charm and instead focuses inward in perhaps his best on-screen performance to date.

Valjean finds a mission and a quest and hopeful redemption as factory owner once Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired and thrown away because of the daughter she cares for in secret.  Fantine is famously the first chapter of the Hugo tale, and it proves the most successful chapter in Hooper's Les Miserables-- detractors of the musical form or the movie itself should note, it's the best chapter of the stage play as well, fret not.  Fantine's tragedy and angst is doomed but unmistakably poignant because of the power, fragility and nearly spiritually attuned prowess that Hathaway provides.  Brought down the rabbit hole from poverty to absolute depravity, devolving into prostitution, the actress digs deeper and more triumphant than perhaps ever expected as her forlorn ballad, "I Dreamed a Dream," chronicles her misery (juxtaposed with Valjean's "Who Am I?," neither character will ever know their extent on one another.)

As Fantine's tale reaches the hell that's promised in her song, Valjean promises to take care of her child, the comely Cosette, whose horribly abused by surrogate parents\thieves\comic relief players M. and Mde. Thenardier (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), innkeepers and "masters of the house" who spoil their one and only daughter Eponine as Cosette toils away in miserly servitude.  Valjean finesses himself to take care of Cosette himself, hopefully reaching redemption in the process.  Of course, Les Miserables is bigger than this, at a mighty two-hour-forty-minute run time, charts the French Revolution comes, as Javert continues to hunt Valjean, as Cosette grows into a woman (played by Amanda Seyfried) and is courted by young revolutionary Marius (a wonderful Eddie Redmayne), whom a grown-up Eponine (terrific Samantha Barks) quietly and "on her own" carries a torch for.  There's a lot of story, as just as the play plods and treks about, as does the movie, sometimes with a business-like briskness, but mostly with a refined and coalesced flow to keep the momentum growing.  There's nearly a dignity and gracefulness to the structure Hooper attains, one that should please the ardent musical lovers while calming the more cynical minded of cinephiles.

What's most surprising in how Hooper and team maintain a balance to Les Miserables that keeps the movie reverent enough, while allowing itself the artistic freedom to let it all out from time to time.  The film is nearly unafraid to dare one to bask in it's foolishness, it's bombast, but the performers-- especially Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne and Barks-- keep the film from every turning soggy, making their musical soliloquies and asides nearly magical in their connective-ness.  Crowe and Seyfried are the less musically adept in respect, but both are appropriate in their roles (Crowe, especially has the posture and stance, in not the pipes, of a great Javert; Seyfried is perceived as mere cipher.)  The camera, especially in it's ripe close-ups are sometimes distracting, and have a nearly kitchsy effect, especially when the Thenardiers are playing to rafters, but like all in a production full of the fullest of emotion, there's a forgivable, even whimsical take for a Les Miserables able and comfortable to lay everything on without hesitation.

For as Fantine aches in rhythms with its audience, Valjean's quest for honorable life seers with conviction, just as Epinone's long lost love is melancholic in it's splendor.  They all suffer, but it proves perhaps the best motion picture experience of 2012 for it.  A 

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