Sunday, December 23, 2012
Review: "Les Misérables"
Epic yet intimate, "Les Misérables" is an astonishing cinematic feat.
Here is Victor Hugo's sprawling novel, which has been adapted to film numerous times and then turned into a smash Broadway musical, and now returns as the movie version of that stage production. It boasts the same huge cast of characters, dozens of songs and outsized production backdrop of a turbulent 19th century France, building up to the June Rebellion of 1832.
Yet, when Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) or Fantine (Anne Hathaway) or the other figures are pouring out their souls in song, the artifice of the theater melts away and it feels like they're singing not for an audience but for themselves.
Director Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar a couple of years ago for "The King's Speech," and his team have crafted a marvelous rendition of something familiar. This "Les Misérables" is fresh and vibrant, with a populist message about the people of the streets rising up against the ultra-wealthy.
But most importantly, this is the story of people about whom we come to care very deeply. It doesn't hurt that the singing stars are generally tremendous, with Hathaway the clear standout. Jackman, a veteran song-and-dance man, expertly belts his way through some big set pieces. And Russell Crowe surprises us with a resonant and heartfelt baritone.
The thing that's most amazing about the crooning is that the actors were actually recorded live on the set, and that's what we hear. Usually such things are re-dubbed in a looping studio after the fact. The result is thus imperfect in pitch, but intentionally so. Hooper's bold choice only adds to the sense that the music is happening spontaneously in front of the audience, rather than being rendered flawlessly for us.
Hathaway's scene where Fantine wallows in her misery with "I Dreamed a Dream" -- perhaps the best-known song from the musical -- is the encapsulation of this approach. Hathaway sings the entire thing in one uninterrupted take, her face filthy and her hair shorn to a horrid buzz, her voice rising from a whisper to a shout as her emotions boil over from self-pity into anger.
It's an absolutely gobsmacking moment, and one of the most arresting performances of any movie this year.
Hugo's story is so well-known as to be considered iconic: Valjean, hardened by 19 years of imprisonment for stealing bread, has his world turned around when a lonely old priest shows him a tremendous kindness. He becomes a man of supreme altruism and virtue, but ironically must break the law to do so.
Forever pursued by the relentless police inspector Javert (Crowe), who abides by the strict dictates of the law over true justice, Valjean leaves behind his name and identity to become the mayor of his town and the wealthy owner of a factory. Fantine, one of his workers, is discharged for dubious reasons and turns to ever sadder means to support her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
Valjean eventually learns of her plight, and pledges to care for Cosette, rescuing her from the clutches of the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) -- purported innkeepers who employ every method, legal or otherwise, to get their percentage. He raises her to womanhood (Amanda Seyfried takes over the role) where she falls for an idealistic young rebel named Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
As their student rebellion snowballs into violence, all these disparate forces clash in one dramatic upheaval of love, loyalty and strife.
The soaring songs, the bitter tragedy, the majestic sweep -- "Les Misérables" is a standing-ovation triumph.
3.5 stars out of four