Film Review: Les Miserables – Visceral, Engrossing and Sometimes Powerful

Film Review: Gordon K. Smith

lesmisstillI saw Cameron Mackintosh’s musical megahit “Les Miserables” on stage once, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale in the late ’90s. I was in the balcony and since I couldn’t hear half the lyrics, don’t remember much of the plot and mostly remember the spectacular set pieces (such as the climactic suicide). I think this is a common situation with a lot of productions of “Les Mis” and other celebrated roadshows. For the long awaited film adaptation, director Tom Hooper (THE KING’S SPEECH) has decided to fix this by making the experience an almost literally face-to-face one, with lengthy closeups of the actors singing and emoting (and singing and emoting), sometimes directly into the camera, so you feel their breath, their spit, and in some shots can study their dental work.

That’s not the usual for a screen musical (LES MISERABLES would actually qualify as an opera, since all but a handful of lines are sung). There’s a good reason for that, since doing so would make the lip-synching to the playback all too obvious. Hooper has relied on some modern technology so his actors could perform all their songs live on camera, making the numbers organic and performance-driven. The only music on set was a piano accompaniment fed to the actors through earpieces; the pianist adjusted his playing to the actor’s singing pace, instead of the other way around. Wires and such were digitally deleted in post production. This isn’t the first time songs were recorded “live” in a musical – Streisand did it in FUNNY GIRL – but never on this level, with this many performers.

The overall effect is visceral, engrossing and sometimes powerful. Hooper does acrobatics with the camera, and though I usually dislike a lot of editing for musical numbers, here it’s extremely well done. I wish I could say that it works beautifully one hundred percent of the time, but it doesn’t. I’d trade some of those closeups for more, and longer, wide shots, for the sake of perspective and spectacle. Nor does it render every lyric crystal clear. You may still get lost here and there. So for you non-”Glee” types or those who didn’t read your French lit syllabus, here’s the gist of Victor Hugo’s story that’s been told in every medium since its 1862 publication, including at least a dozen film versions (anyone remember the 1998 try with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush? Didn’t think so.):

In 1815 France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled after doing 19 years for stealing bread for his family, breaks parole, and starts a new life incognito as a successful factory owner. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of his workers, is fired, hits the streets as a hooker, and falls ill. On her deathbed she makes Valjean swear to find and take care of her daughter Cosette, who’s being raised by a couple of scam-artist innkeepers. On Valjean’s trail for 20 years is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who’s obsessed with Valjean’s capture (this is said to be one of the inspirations for the ’60s TV series “The Fugitive”). They all get involved in the 1832 Paris June Rebellion, wherein Cosette falls for Marius, a passionate student rebel.

Jackman, a musical theater veteran, is superb. Crowe looks right for the part, and he’s okay, but his singing and his acting here are rather one-note (the man has range, but maybe not that much range). Hathaway makes the most out of her limited number of scenes and her intense “I Dreamed a Dream” number is the showstopper, as well as the litmus test for Hooper’s matter-of-taste direction. You’ll either be deeply moved or holding your ears. For me, just as much a showstopper is “Master of the House” – Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are hysterical as the conniving Thenardiers, and coming about 40 minutes in, it’s a much-needed relief from all the gravitas. As the teenage Cosette, Amanda Seyfried is stunning, visually if not aurally.

LES MIS is gorgeous to look at, with beautifully coordinated cinematography (by Danny Cohen), costumes and art direction (a lot of it clearly via CGI). Some have been calling this the greatest movie musical ever – sorry, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN has nothing to worry about. But even with my misgivings, I was won over and misty-eyed by the end (even after seeing Jackman covered head to foot in, uh, sewage).

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