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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Les Misérables Review

Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables
Universal Pictures
Les Misérables Review
2012, 157 minutes
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements

Les Misérables is one of the most fascinating films that I have seen this year.  Fascinating not in the sense that the movie itself is interesting, but fascinating in the sense of what director Tom Hooper did with the material.  I have now seen it twice and with a second viewing, the exquisite crafting of this film was more evident.

This is definitely not your typical musical for many reasons and because of this, it will, and has been dividing critics.  This version is dark, grim, shot in close-up, and sung-through (very little dialogue is spoken, almost all of it is sung), and it is almost entirely sung live (the actors don't lip-sync to prerecorded music).

Les Misérables follows the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man who violates his parole after being in prison doing forced labor for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sick nephew.  He begins a new life and adopts Cosette, the daughter of a prostitute, Fantine, upon her death.  All the while, Valjean is hunted by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man who is determined to catch Valjean at any cost.

The acting in this film is stunning from the leads to the supporting characters.  I want to single out two performers, however: Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, who both happen to be this films' two Oscar nominees for acting.  Hugh Jackman gives his best performance yet as Valjean.  Jackman seems to be living this role, not acting it.  What Jackman does with the character of Valjean is he manages to infuse him with a kindness that is the result of 19 years of hard labor.  He gets to the core of Valjean.  He feels his suffering and pain.  In this role, Jackman seems to be in his element.  Performing the songs live doesn't seem to phase him at all.  He never seems uncomfortable and is always a treat to watch, as his voice is obviously trained, but he never lets himself be showy.  It simply sounds as if a man with a good voice is singing instead of talking, not belting his heart out during every song.

Anne Hathaway is the standout in this talented cast and is one of the standouts in the entire year's worth of performances.  As the broken Fantine, she is extraordinary.  I have never seen anyone make me feel for them as much as Hathaway made me feel for her in Les Misérables.  Fantine is a factory worker who gets fired from her job and has to sell her hair, teeth, and then body to support her young daughter.    Hathaway's very little screen time makes each minute of her performance more precious.  The climax of both her performance and the film is her heartbreaking rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream".  Through tears, Hathaway sings the song, her fragile voice attempting to get out each word.  This song is filmed in almost entirely one take with the shot focused on her face.  The passion Hathaway shows in this role is remarkable.  She looks and sounds like someone at the end of their rope.  And because of the authenticity in this performance, I was in tears when "I Dreamed a Dream" was over.  This is a performance beyond acting.

Eddie Redmayne is great as Marius, one of the revolution's leaders, Samantha Barks gives a powerful performance as Eponine, a poor girl who loves Marius, and everyone else is quite solid.  Russell Crowe has gotten a bad rap for his performance as Javert.  While he was never menacing, he felt very human and sung his part very well.  Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the Therandiers, the thieving innkeepers who "care" for Cosette, and steal every scene that they're in.  Their comedic timing is impeccable.

Tom Hooper's direction of Les Misérables is the film's other saving grace.  Hooper shoots much of the film in close-up emphasizing the grime and grit of the dark period portrayed in the film.  While he uses one too many Dutch angles, he always seems to have complete control over the film.  And, his decision to have the actors sing live is one of the decade's best directorial decisions.  With this decision, the movie musical will forever be changed.  With live singing, everything feels more natural, more real.  Dubbing the music and voices over the film never looked or sounded natural.

While most aspects of Les Misérables are amazing, some aren't, mainly in the storytelling.  One big problem is that many of the characters are not developed enough, particularly Javert.  Why does he feel the need to chase Valjean for years?  The relationship between Valjean and Javert is never as interesting as it could be as is the under-developed relationship between Marius and Cosette.  They look at each other, fall in love, and that's it.

The first hour or so of Les Misérables is pure brilliance.  The flow of the film is smooth, and the story is always compelling.  After time passes and Cosette grows up and the revolution starts, the film loses some of its flow and momentum, and I suspect that to be due to the source material.  That being said, the second chunk is nonetheless compelling.

Overall, Les Misérables flawed, and is not the best of the Best Picture Oscar-nominees, but it is still a vivid, expertly acted and directed rendition of one of the most beloved 20th Century musicals.  This movie would be worth seeing for Anne Hathaway's performance alone.

-Joshua Handler

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