Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Misérables

Les Miserables
  • Released Internationally on 25/12/12
  • Released in Malta by KRS on 16/01/13
Preview (first published 01/01/13 in VIDA Magazine)

The festive season was especially crowded at the box-office last year, so thankfully we have a handful of highly anticipated ‘event’ films trickling over into January. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but based on popular appeal and a huge worldwide guaranteed audience, this is probably the one that will make the most waves. Considering the many millions who have watched and cherished the stage adaptation over the past quarter of a century, this has a lot of great expectations to live up to.
The ingredients for great cinema are all there - a tragic and epic story, stunning and instantly recognizable music, larger than life heroes and villains, and a fair dose of comedy. What has been added recently is a cast and crew who should hopefully do the material justice. After other directors were mentioned in the past, the job was handed to Tom Hooper, fresh from his huge success as the director of The King’s Speech. The scribe roped in to adapt the play for the screen was Williams Nicholson (Gladiator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Plus the big names involved in the stage phenomenon are very much on board, with super-producer Cameron Mackintosh (who often visits his mum here in Malta), producing and apparently also having a cameo.
The casting was always going to be a challenge. Hooper insisted that the musical performances are recorded live on set, adding to the realism of the performance, but also making the roles much more demanding. Hugh Jackman has proved he can sing and dance with class, even on the Oscar stage, and he stars as the hero Valjean. His lifelong nemesis is portrayed by Russell Crowe, who has his own rock band down under and should therefore manage at least most of the notes hit by Inspector Javert. Anne Hathaway, who has also sung live on the Oscar stage, is Fantine, whilst Amanda Seyfried (Mamma Mia!) is Cosette. Rising star Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) is Marius, and the comic duo, the Thénardiers, will be brought to life by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who had appeared together in the musical film version of Sweeney Todd.
Nowadays, many musicals are adaptations of films, but it is almost inevitable that the long-standing, worldwide success of original musicals results in them making the reverse journey to the screen. After Moulin Rouge! revived the musical as a film genre over a decade ago, we were soon treated to a lavish production of The Phantom of the Opera. This has the potential to be an even better and more successful adaptation, with a stellar cast and a courageous singing ethic. If you’ve never had the honour of watching this amazing story unfold on stage, and hear the timeless music, you’re in for a treat. If you have, then this is a must.

Review (12/01/13)
In future, I hope all musicals are made this way.
When I sat down to watch this film I was starving. Within minutes, I had forgotten about my hunger, and for two and a half hours I was so engrossed in the music, the drama and the anguish of this classic tale, that I only noticed my stomach rumblings well into the end credits. From the first few seconds, it is made very clear that this will be a large-scale adaptation, with a hefty scope and budget as befitting this loved story. But once the spectacle has been taken in, the camera zooms in onto the worn, pained face of our hero Valjean, and this establishes a recurring feature of this adaptation, and one which proves very successful - this is Les Misérables, the musical, in extreme close-up.
As mentioned in the preview above, the ‘singing live on set’ was one of the most discussed issues about this film. I loved the results, especially when coupled with the in-your-face direction by Tom Hooper. I quickly realised why I was enjoying the songs so much. I realised that the quality of the singing is ultimately secondary to the acting of the characters. Since the actors don't need to worry about lip syncing perfectly to a pre-recorded track, they can concentrate more on what they are singing, and what the character is going through. Yes, maybe the resulting soundtrack of this film is far from pitch perfect, and may pale in comparison to the musical’s previous cast recordings - but it sounds, and more importantly looks more real. Having front row seats at the theatre is great, but this is like having the character in a phone booth with you as they belt out their lines. Every line on their face, every grimace or smile as they sing, every furtive look, is wonderfully clear. And this makes the songs all that much better. I understood lines and lyrics I had never understood before, because the acting brought them to life in a more vivid way than was possible on stage. 
The results are most evident in two key sequences. First, Hugh Jackman, who by the way is astounding in this film, has a prolonged, uninterrupted soliloquy at the end of the prologue, which plays out beautifully and rushes toward a euphoric ending as the music, and the cameras, soar to signal the start of the next act. But you only get a few minutes to recover, because soon afterwards, Anne Hathaway enters the scene. She quickly loses her hair, her tooth and her pride, but then her brief presence culminates in a four-and-a-half minute tour de force, as she brings ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ heart-wrenchingly to life. Again, it’s an uninterrupted close-up, and again, there might be notes (but just a few) where she falters slightly, but it’s so stunningly and convincingly well-acted that, for me, she brought the song so vividly to life it was like I understood it for the first time, despite having heard it countless times before. The range of emotions she goes through in that one scene is incredible, and I hope she continues to win supporting actress awards all the way to the Oscars, if just for this one scene. Goodness knows how many takes they must have done, but it sure was worth it. 
The rest is all more or less as expected. The damp, ugly setting of revolutionary Paris is recreated wonderfully, and the ensemble of famous names and stage veterans do justice to the timeless music. The exhilarating moments such as ‘Who Am I?’ are all as rousing as expected, and the amusing Thénardiers provide some much needed relief from the heavy proceedings.  Besides working wonderfully as a film narrative, this adaptation showcases what a masterpiece the music is. The recurring themes and songs which serve as signposts in this lengthy saga lend themselves to great montage scenes inbetween the quieter, more intimate moments. There was one point where I had to remind myself not to clap at the end of the song. The ‘building the barricade’ scene is also a joy to behold, and something that only a film adaptation could pull off.
Ironically, I felt the film slacked very slightly once the actual revolution started, with the plot not as tight and fast-moving as previous acts. The barricade action scene was also the only time I thought it felt claustrophobic and ‘on set’. This unfortunately lost some of the grand scale established in previous scenes. But these are minor quibbles and they were quickly swept from my mind as the film’s ending roared onto screen, bringing the curtain down on a masterful adaptation of a masterpiece musical. Stunning.


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