Wednesday, December 26, 2012

So, I saw Les Miserables yesterday...

To say that I was walking into this film with bias eyes may be a correct assumption.  I’ll be honest here, for there is not another movie in the history of film that I have been more excited to see than ‘Les Miserables’.  That isn’t to say that I expected it to be the greatest movie I had ever seen, but in all my years of movie watching, I have never anticipated the release of a film with such rabid obsession as I have with ‘Les Miserables’.  It probably stems back to my childhood and the fact that by the age of twelve I had already seen the stage musical four times and was pretty much obsessed with it as a whole.  Living a hop, skip and a jump away from many of the finest theaters in New England, my family frequented the theater.  I still remember the first time I saw ‘Les Miserables’.  I was seven.  It changed me.

Musicals are, in my opinion, one of the greatest genres film has to offer.  They deliver to us such depth of storytelling in a way that is unique to its own.  You don’t see people running through the streets communicating in song and yet when it is done with such passion in front of the lens it all makes sense and feels so complete.

When the initial reviews for ‘Les Miserables’ started to flood in with largely negative notices, I was nervous.  How could this be a flop?  How could this material get butchered?  Not that it couldn’t, since we’ve all endured the mess that was 1998’s ‘Les Miserables’, but I still had faith that Hooper would do the source material proud.  In all honesty, most of the vicious attacks against the film felt so contrived and calculated that it was almost as if critics were anticipating a failure.  Nathanial Rogers over at The Film Experience noted this same thing.  Whether it be angst against Hooper for stealing Fincher’s Oscar (like it was his fault, but I get it sort of) or an aversion to the movie musical itself, it seemed since the start of the year that this particular film had a lot of naysayers before it was even finished being made.

Well, Christmas rolled around yesterday and I finally got to see it for myself.

I loved the hell out of this movie!

‘Les Miserables’ is not a film for everyone.  It’s funny to leave a theater and hear complaints from people behind me like “did they really have to sing everything” and I’m thinking to myself…IT’S A MUSICAL!  Seriously, if that is your complaint then why bother going to the movies.  I, for one, was thrilled when I heard that this was going to be completely sung throughout.  ‘Les Miserables’ has some of the most beautiful songs and composes music that it deserves a faithful adaptation.  Hooper’s triumph is about as close as you can come.  Of course, no film is perfect and I am not blind to certain imperfections, but overall I was extremely pleased with this film and consider it a marvelous representation of what a true movie musical should and could be.

What Hooper and company get right here is the tone of ‘Les Miserables’.  This film is about the depths of despair but also the rising power of hope that come blossom from redemption.  Jean Valjean, a man swallowed up by his past mistakes (and the looming oppression of injustice) is attempting to right his wrongs and turn his life around.  Being spared a life of slavery by the kind gesture of a Bishop, Valjean breaks his parole in pursuit of a life without chains and makes himself over as a wealthy mayor and business man.  There are two people in his life that cause unexpected friction and set his life spiraling into a different direction.  First is Fantine, a young woman trying to provide for her illegitimate child.  The second is Javert, the ruthless general who is in feverish pursuit of Jean Valjean.  As the years pass by Valjean’s guard is constantly up as he fights to evade Javert’s clutches, all the while taking on a new responsibility that opens his heart and teaches him the importance of love; something that has be choked out of his soul thanks to the heartless realities of life.

For the fan of the source, Hooper’s film is going to make you smile.  I wept.  My parents wept.  In fact, the majority of the theater wept, and this is only the third time in my life when the theater broke into applause during the credits.  ‘Les Miserables’ is an emotional wonderment and a film that will break you down.  The performances by the entire cast are wonderful, with Anne Hathaway delivering one of the finest supporting performance of the past several decades (her take on ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ may be one of the finest cinematic moments, ever) and Eddie Redmayne completely taking me by surprise with the amount of depth and heart he brought to what could have been an easily dismissive role (loverboy).

The pacing is also pretty spectacular.  The film just glides from one number to the next.  It certainly doesn't feel like a nearly three hour movie.  We are constantly drawn into each scene, not one feeling unnecessary.  This is a feat in itself, considering that this is a film consisting entirely of song and score and a lot of the score is redundant (and yet it is so beautifully composed that one never tires of hearing it).

Some have balked at the vocals of some of the cast, in particular Russell Crowe.  To them I say this; film and theater are two very different things.  When one goes to the theater, they expect to hear voices that cause their hair to stand on end.  You are watching actors who are trained to sing to the cheap seats so-to-speak.  It is part of the experience.  Film is a different animal.  If this film were spoken word, you would expect the actors to dig deep.  You’d expect to hear their voices crack and their breath give out; why would you expect any less from a song?  It is very obvious that Hooper was going for a more realistic approach, a more earthy and grounded take on the musical.  Instead of expecting vocal perfection from his cast, Hooper wanted to unearth their emotional response to the story.  I mean, Hathaway goes as far as to suck snot up her nose as she belts out her big number, and it works.  Crowe, while not capable of hitting the big notes, has a very pleasant tone to his voice and handles himself quite well here. 

Yes, there are faults.  Hooper’s obsession with closeups is a bit overwhelming.  The film is so beautiful, from the costumes to the set pieces, that it is such a shame that for the most part ‘Les Miserables’ basically shifts from one person’s face to another’s.  I understand it to a degree, since watching Hathaway crumble during ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in one take with no cuts and no makeup and full on pain works wonderfully, but it does become somewhat claustrophobic after a while.  It’s baffling to me that Hooper wouldn’t want to expand his view a bit and let us take in the vastness of the cityscape, especially since he did so quite effectively in ‘The King’s Speech’. 

This, and ‘Bring Him Home’ is a terrible mess.

At the end of the day, I loved this.  My parents even noted to me that it was better than the stage musical.  I don’t agree to that degree.  There are few things that can rival the power of this story told on the stage, but I feel that Tom Hooper and company captured it to the best of their ability.  I feel pretty confident that if the cinematography weren’t so monotonous (the dutch angles at least added some flamboyance to otherwise boring camera work) this film would be the clear frontrunner for the Oscar.


  1. Excellent review! I loved it as well, even if it isn't perfect. It's a great experience, and it's in my top 5 of the year. Though, I did think it was a little too long. The pacing of the scenes worked, but the overall film felt noticeably lengthy.

    Sadly, I think you're right about the cinematography hurting its Oscar chances. I would be thrilled if it wins though.

    1. Thanks! I'm glad you liked this too. It's my #2 right now, but I've yet to see some of the big guns. I didn't have any issue with the length, but as you can see, this story is so near and dear to me that it could have been seven hours and I would have been happy.

      Those damn closeups though! UGH...the more I think about it the more angry I get, not because they ruin the film but because they hold it back from perfection.

      Hathaway though...GOOD GOD SHE WAS AMAZING!