A Mesh of Mediums

Jan 23 • ARTSY SMARTSY, FilmNo Comments

Les Misérables
stars
Starring Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman

BIG SCREEN MUSICAL: Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman give great performances on the big-screen version of ‘Les Mis.’ Courtesy photo

BIG SCREEN MUSICAL: Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman give great performances on the big-screen version of ‘Les Mis.’ Courtesy photo

Musicals are not a genre of film I run into with high expectations. I have nothing against them, and there are several I consider to be quite good; however, it’s a genre I prefer to see in the theater. It’s a medium best served onstage. Of course, there are some exceptions: “Singin’ in the Rain” is by far better onscreen, and I haven’t seen a production of “Grease” that ever captured the same kind of energy as the big-screen adaptation.

Every year seems to bring a new musical to the big screen; yet, most do little to change my theory that I’d rather see it live. “Les Misérables” is one of the better movie musicals in recent years and makes an interesting argument for the legitimacy of the genre as a cinematic experience.

I’m familiar with many of the songs from the musical and I know the story. Still, I had never seen the musical production of “Les Misérables,” and that’s probably a good thing because I had no idea what to expect.

The movie version tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner who has spent 19 years slaving away in shackles for stealing a simple loaf of bread. His tormenter is a rigid and pious piece of work named Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean serves his sentence but is labeled “a dangerous man” and cannot find work. Rather than be resigned to his fate, he creates a new identity and a life for himself as a business owner and respected man about town.

One of his workers is a troubled young woman, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who must work to support her daughter, Cosette. After an altercation at the factory, Fantine is fired by the foreman. Jean Valjean is preoccupied with concealing his identity after a visit from Javert, and because of this, poor Fantine is forced to work as a prostitute. When Valjean learns of this, he tries to help Fantine and care for her daughter. Unfortunately, Fantine succumbs to the horrors around her and Valjean is exposed as a wanted fugitive, forcing him to take Cossette to Paris to try and start a new life.

The film is broken up into two separate stories: first, the tale of Jean Valjean, his descent into the gutter and his struggle to crawl out and make a life for himself. His journey is mirrored by Fantine, who never manages to pull herself out of the hole she has plummeted into. The second half of the film introduces the idea of revolution into the story, as all the characters are impacted by a burgeoning takeover of the city, as the poor rise up to make a stand against their bourgeoisie oppressors.

The vast majority of “Les Misérables” consists of staged numbers; the actors often sing the songs in a long continuous take. I can’t remember a movie-musical that felt authentic, like I was watching someone sing live instead of simply hearing a recorded playback. The songs have a real presence to them, making the production feel like a big, staged event. I suppose that’s the best compliment I can pay the film; it’s also my biggest criticism.

So much of “Les Mis” feels unreal. There’s a lot of close-ups and handheld camera work intended to bring this grand tale down to earth. I would hardly call it “gritty realism.” It felt like the director, Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), wanted to make his version more of an epic tale, but none of the locations mirror the real world. Everything seems like soundstage or well-dressed set.

Other pieces are so blatantly green-screened with special-effects-enhanced eyesores. I couldn’t figure out if the goal was to make the movie look more like a theater, or if it was merely a product of poor production design and lackluster virtual cinematography.

It’s unfortunate because at its heart is a very good movie. There are wonderful performances from its cast, especially Hugh Jackman, who is practically unrecognizable at the opening of the film. He plays a tragically well-intentioned soul, trying hard to carve out a meaningful existence in an unfair world. This is easily the best performance I’ve even seen from Jackman, who has finally found a cinematic role to showcase his stage chops.

Anne Hathaway is equally compelling, though relegated to a supporting role that might constitute 15 minutes of total screen time. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a heartbreaking and emotionally stirring number; it showcases the amazing depth and range that Hathaway is capable of singing.

“Les Misérables” often feels like a throwback to a more irony-free, less cynical age of cinema. I appreciated that. This is an unpretentious, earnest film. It doesn’t succeed on every level. There are several scenes featuring Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter that feel almost separate from the rest of the movie, as if Hooper cribbed material from a Tim Burton film. The light-hearted attempts at humor feel tonally at odds. It’s difficult because every other part is so well cast. Both Cohen and Carter feel like tired, predictable choices; I found myself wishing they weren’t in the movie at all.

Still, I would recommend “Les Mis” as an earnest piece of musical cinema carried by a fabulous lead performance. We’ll see if the Academy agrees enough to crown it best film at the upcoming Oscars.

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