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Knight at the Movies: Les Miserables; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2012-12-19

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Les Miserables is nearly the last of the 1980s Broadway musical juggernauts to finally make it to the big screen. (Cats and Miss Saigon have yet to go under the lens.)

Based on the Victor Hugo novel, the material has been the basis for dozens of film adaptations, and the musical version has been a worldwide sensation for nigh on 30 years. Like many of its '80s counterparts, Les Miz is sung-through and noted for its signature, gimmicky set piece—the gigantic turntable that slowly spins, creating an "epic" feel in the theater. (Phantom's was the chandelier, Miss Saigon's the helicopter and Sunset Boulevard's the mansion staircase.) Although the turntable isn't retained for the film version—which stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter—everything else apparently was.

The movie, which clocks in at 160 minutes, feels just as long and meandering as the stage counterpart, and by its end you feel as if you've been mentally turning that treadmill as long as Jean Valjean has been on the lam. Director Tom Hooper—hot after his crowd-pleasing, Oscar-winning 2010 film The King's Speech—has taken the reins of this sodden behemoth and visually reduced it to its essence: a somber chamber piece in which the gaggle of leading characters sing a series of melodically pretty and lyrically simplistic songs to one another. I love musicals and several of the songs in this score, but Les Miz has always felt like an endurance test to me—the way that sitting through opera sometimes does—and Hooper's decision to film the numbers in handheld close-ups just about did me in.

Jackman plays Valjean, a decent man convicted and bound in chains for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread in 19th-century France. Fate intercedes and Valjean escapes from prison and the daily brutalities of Inspector Javert (Crowe); Valjean then invents a new life for himself as a prosperous factory owner. Inadvertently, he causes the luckless Fantine (Hathway) to lose her job, thus condemning her to a life of prostitution and leading to her demise. Discovering his mistake, Valjean makes a deathbed promise to Fantine that he will raise her daughter, Cosette, as his own. Darling Cosette (for whom the term "waif" was born) is subjected to innumerable cruelties by the lewd and corrupt tavern owners Thenadier (Baron Cohen) and his slattern of a wife (Bonham Carter).

These two characters, variations on Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett, headline the musical's one real chorus number, "Master of the House" (itself a sort of variation on "Oom Pah Pah" from Oliver!). The comic relief arrives in the nick of time as by then we have had more than enough of Hooper's aforementioned decision to shoot the songs handheld in close-up (and live, to boot). This isn't the stylized world of Chicago, Hairspray or Rent. This is a warts-and-all (and bad-teeth) approach from the get-go, and Hooper makes sure we see the blood, sweat, tears and plenty of snot running from the noses of his characters as they sing of regret and loss, gasping for air and, no doubt, trying to keep the phlegm from spewing on the cameraman hovering a foot away in the process.

The most famous of these ballads, of course, is Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream," which Patti LuPone gorgeously inaugurated in the London production in 1985 and which got new life when Susan Boyle sang it on live television and became a worldwide sensation overnight. Hathaway gives it her all as she nobly reduces herself to a walking, bereft corpse, never missing a note during the dehumanizing montage that accompanies it. But one ends up admiring the actress's willingness to plumb the depths (not to mention, bravely allowing herself to be shorn on camera) rather than the performance itself. It's a Hilary Swank-ish role—you applaud Hathaway's determination and resilience but it's nowhere as emotionally complex as her work in The Dark Knight Rises or, certainly, Rachel Getting Married (although Oscar voters love awarding this kind of effort).

Hathaway beautifully expires and we are left with Valjean raising Cosette, who grows into the golden-haired Seyfried, who falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius is the earnest student revolutionary who, in turn, is loved by Eponine (Samantha Barks), the grown-up daughter of Thenadier and his wife who is given the musical's other blockbuster ballad, "On My Own" (shot with yet more handheld close ups but less snot).

Meanwhile, nasty Javert (Crowe's rather intense tenor matches the stern character rather nicely) has picked up Valjean's scent and is in hot pursuit once again. (There's more than a hint of a homoerotic undercurrent here.) Javert vows he'll never give up the chase—that is, until he witnesses yet another selfless act by Valjean: rescuing Marius from certain death after the student revolution has failed while singing the show's 11 o'clock number "Bring Him Home."

Jackman is a certified musical stage star with the Tony to prove it—but the number is unfortunately situated in his reedy upper register. The decision to do the singing live emphasizes that and instead of being emotionally moved, one is aware of Jackman's struggle to hit the notes.

The pretty melodies and air of doom and gloom continue for another 30 minutes (with a tad more comic relief from Sacha and Helena tossed in) until we finally, finally get to the finale, in which several of the characters presumably meet up in heaven and start all over again. The French translation for Les Miserables is "the miserables"—which also aptly described, no doubt, large portions of the audience sitting through the stage version. But at least the stage version allowed the eye to roam around the theater when relief was needed. After Hooper's sweeping opening—which raises expectations that are never again met—the rest all seems to be shot in one crowded alleyway or up the nostrils of the leading characters. Ironically, the grandly scaled Les Miserables may be the first epic-sized musical that leaves one feeling claustrophobic.

Film notes:

—A second helping of Hobbits: Last week I reported on the dreadful effect of director Peter Jackson's wrongheaded decision to film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in the super-realistic 48-frames-per-second aspect ratio (as opposed to the norm, 24 frames per second). As if 3D isn't bad enough (and the process adds nothing to the movie), the result of this supposed technical advance makes everything onscreen—no matter how insignificant—look as if it were shot using a video camera circa 1989.

However—and it's a big however—a return trip to Tolkienland has eased a lot of this visual damage for me. Taking the movie in again in the standard 24fps (albeit still with that headache-inducing, superfluous 3D) allows one to focus on the story at hand, become immersed in the mythical Middle-earth and its fantastic inhabitants, and discover the many pleasures to be found in Jackson's movie. Although the film is still way too long-winded, especially in its first section, this second helping of Hobbits felt in many ways like I was seeing the movie for the first time.

—New Year's Eve for movie lovers: Get ready to set sail for the fifth annual Camp Midnight presentation of the camptacular 1972 disaster flick The Poseidon Adventure (celebrating its 40th anniversary) on Monday, Dec. 31, at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Dick O'Day (my alter ego) will captain our filmgoing passengers on a pre-show voyage (beginning at 11 p.m.) that includes party favors, a champagne toast, comp drink ticket, '70s cruisewear costume contest (with prizes) and an interactive screening guide. I'll be joined by David Cerda, artistic director of Handbag Productions, to provide running commentary throughout the film. The screening will be timed so that theater patrons and their celluloid counterparts will celebrate midnight at the exact same time. What more could a camp movie enthusiast ask for? www.musicboxtheatre.com

Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitymediagroup.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter website.


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