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Les Miserables


This article was published December 28, 2012 at 12:27 a.m.


Madame Thenardier (Helena Bonham Carter), Cosette (Isabelle Allen) and Thenardier (Sacha Baron Cohen) star in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables.

— Les Miserables

87 Cast: Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone Director: Tom Hooper Rating: PG-13, for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements Running time: 157 minutes

After hours of grueling research, I have determined that this Broadway-busting extravaganza was actually based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, himself a bit of a tragic figure, and it is a fine French novel about an honorable fugitive from justice devoting his life to a young girl he adopts while dodging a particularly dogged investigator amid a backdrop of a failed youth revolution in the slums of Paris.

There’s no telling what Hugo would have made of the resultant musical sensation adapted from his book, originally put together in the early ’80s by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, though one supposes he wouldn’t have minded terribly the considerable royalty checks.

I should take a moment here to confess at the outset that musicals, typically, aren’t my thing. In fact, so much against them am I, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve never even seen Singin’ in the Rain, a film that’s routinely listed on critical lists as being among the top 10 of all time.

I understand the process of a lot of films involves a great deal of glitz and show-biz fabrication, but the excesses routinely exhibited in the musical genre have always struck me as maddeningly manufactured and inauthentic — an unholy combination of the melodrama of opera and the cursed lizard-brain pleasing musical aesthetic of a deodorant commercial — I haven’t been able to embrace the experience. To my eternal detriment, I well understand.

All of which I say to suggest I come to this film with as little foreknowledge and anticipation as anyone in the country. As such, and with the multitude of feverish fans and their giant collective wrath in mind, I must ask a few basic questions of this two-and-a-half hour fulcrum of sound, sight and searing emotion after my first-ever viewing.

  1. Considering that the second and third acts of the film are all about the courageousness of the young revolutionaries, led by the dashing Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and his friend, the formerly wealthy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who risk their lives seeking equality for their countrymen, why, after their failed uprising, do Marius and the stunning Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) eventually get married in a vainglorious castle, with tremendously expensive finery and a bevy of tailored foot soldiers? Isn’t this something of a hypocrisy, or am I missing something?

  2. Why does the villainous Javert (Russell Crowe), who spends his entire life hunting the escaped fugitive Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), refer to himself so frequently in the third person, like some renegade NBA player? Is his ego so fragile that he must keep reminding himself of who he is and what he represents?

  3. In a film entirely about the French, specifically the slums of Paris, why does everyone — including the adorable street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) — speak with a Dick-Van-Dyke-cockney accent? Is this a statement about the nature of slums and humanity’s connectivity, or is it just the fear that Americans wouldn’t be able to understand strongly accented French slang?

  4. How is it Hugh Jackman — a man perhaps best known for playing the savage, beclawed Wolverine in all those X-Men movies — has the range to also do Broadway musicals, and do them exceptionally well? Has that ever been done before? Can you think of another actor with the skill and ridiculous talent to be able to pull that off?

  5. Wait, Anne Hathaway is also in this film — singing powerfully enough to reach through the screen and tear your heart out of your chest cavity — and she just played Catwoman (well, sort of) in last summer’s The Dark Knight Rises. I stand corrected. And this isn’t even a question.

On the considerable plus side, this is a musical that does not employ long, draining dance sequences. In fact, the actors are so busy breaking down and tearing up during their live-singing, they couldn’t possibly be twirling umbrellas or doing a two-step at the same time. In this way, one could say the film employs a sort of realness in its sweeping musical selections, dispensing with chirpy bonhomie and intricate mass dance sequences in favor of gritty, harder-edged singing soliloquys.

It’s an admirable conceit. By allowing the actors to sing for themselves, live on set, director Tom Hooper gives his cast enough space to genuinely feel out the songs they are pouring themselves into. If the end result is a bit mixed — Hathaway and Jackson are both luminescent, Crowe not so much — it’s at least a way to convey emotion that doesn’t feel completely canned and treated. Which, in turn, allows musical atheists such as myself an opportunity to soak in the beauty of the moment without feeling poorly used.

However, the trade-off for this kind of verisimilitude — if one can call it that — is the lack of nonsinging, expositional scenes. You can probably count the number of unsung lines on the fingers of one hand. Thus, every interaction, no matter how slight, is melodized, which is a bit like having a cousin who constantly whistles during family gatherings: It’s unobtrusive at first, but soon enough you want to grab them by the neck and cover their mouths with duct tape.

Still, even weeks later, several of the songs remain firmly entrenched in the back of your head, carving out space for themselves like an egret building a nest. The impressively emotive power of Jackman and Hathaway stick with you as well, so much so that any other objections one might have are made essentially moot. By no means can I call myself a convert, but this musical heathen can at least begin to understand the captivation of so many millions of adoring, rabid fans. God help me, I would probably even be willing to see it again.

MovieStyle, Pages 27 on 12/28/2012

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BarneyClark says... December 29, 2012 at 3:58 p.m.

How can an unlettered buffoon, who does not know the difference between an opera and a musical review this film?

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