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Review – Les Miserables

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By: Stefan Ellison

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The movie musical is a genre that has an up-and-down flux in the recent history of cinema. Of all of the genres, this is the most niche with the exception of Disney’s animated fairy tale adaptations. Even when the double-success of Moulin Rouge and Chicago signaled a possible revival a decade ago, Hollywood is hesitant to greenlight one, unless there is appeal to the younger, Justin Bieber-loving crowd or the older, Academy voters. Les Miserables is the latter and it is definitely one of the grandest and in many ways, riskiest musicals to come from a major studio. Originally a massive novel by Victor Hugo and eventually adapted to the stage in musical format by producer Cameron Mackintosh, Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech fame finally brings the immensely popular show to the screen.

Having never seen the famed stage production, this was my first exposure to the source material in song format (having previously watched the 1935 and 1998 non-musical versions in preparation). The final result is a spectacle of a feature film that respects the story and gives most of its ensemble of actors enough time in the spotlight to shine. Like The King’s Speech, Hooper directs the film with attention to detail on the sets and costumes, while his band of screenwriters try to carefully condense Hugo’s tale into two-and-a-half hours. Much has been made about how the actors sang the numbers live rather than through lip-syncing, as is the norm. This was a logical decision on Hooper’s part, since the entire film is sung from back-to-front, with only a couple of bits of dialogue. While some may find this unorthodox and tiring, I was enthralled through the entire running time and never wished for Hooper to stop the singing in favour of an extended dialogue scene.

As a virgin to the experience of Les Miserables, I was instantly impressed by the incredible songs and full orchestral experience as written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel. The show’s rousing anthem of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is forever etched into my mind with its exquisite chorus, while “On My Own” is quite possibly the most emotional song in the film. “One Day More” is the most heart-pounding of the numbers, primarily because of how it combines all of the other characters and it is that element of ensemble that further helps Les Miserables in becoming a success.

Other versions of Les Miserables give most of the focus to Jean Valjean, the renewed bread thief, but Hooper succeeds in dividing the story among everyone else. Hugh Jackman is very good, displaying that bravado that has earned him the respect of the Tony-watching audience. Russell Crowe’s pipes are unconventional, but his baritone singing is fitting for the obsessive Inspector Javert. One character given a surprising amount of attention is Eddie Redmayne’s student rebellion Marius. His tenacity makes him a very admirable character and Redmayne knocks his big musical solo out of the park. However, his love interest and Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette is strangely thrown by the wayside, despite being a major character and key to Valjean’s continuing will to live. Amanda Seyfried sings well, but she is only given enough to bat her eyelashes and cry a couple of tears.

The stand-out in the ensemble actually proves to be the actor making her screen debut. Samantha Banks brings so much subtle and raw emotion to Eponine and it is difficult not to feel for her character’s sadness and of everybody in Les Miserables, she is the most deserving of the Academy’s recognition. Sadly, the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress will instead be given to Anne Hathaway’s overwrought performance as Fantine. Her big number, “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of the most famous songs in Les Miserables and while her singing is admirable, it is botched by her incredibly over-the-top facial expressions. Unlike the pain displayed by Barks, Hathaway distorts her face to the point where it comes off as false and thus, loses the necessary sorrow in what could have been the most tragic character arc in the film.

Tom Hooper’s direction is not entirely flawless either, especially in where he chooses to place the camera. When swooping over the French cities and landscapes, it is not difficult to admire the sets and be swept into the world that the production designer Eve Stewart has constructed. However, the smaller and more intimate scenes are shot in an almost distracting manner. At times, the actors are shown in extreme close-up to the point where I was worried their faces would be hit by the camera. Hathaway’s performance could have actually been more bearable, had the director of photography zoomed out a little more. In other scenes, the angle will be distorted, and while Hooper was sometimes able to get away with this device in The King’s Speech, it is not as successful in Les Miserables. Cinematographer Danny Cohen also resorts to shaky-cam at times, one of the most annoying of modern film techniques.

Nonetheless, this sort of crowd-pleasing and rousing musical is perfect for this time of year. Fans of the stage show will be satisfied, while Victor Hugo admirers will enjoy yet another great film adaptation, and anybody looking for a grand historical epic should be more than content with Les Miserables. Tom Hooper has crafted a sublime cinematic experience and hopefully its current and expected success will lead to more musicals being greenlit in Tinseltown.

Rating: A-


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