Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Les Miserables

I don't know if I would call myself a fan of the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel, but I have seen three different productions of it, ranging from an astonishingly well-done high school version up to the national touring company that rolled through Edmonton years ago, and I have enjoyed them all.

Knowing that the musical's original producer, Cameron Mackintosh, is behind the recent theatrical release (or adaptation's adaptation as I like to call it), and that the stars all have varying degrees of singing ability and pedigree, it should be no surprise that the movie version of Les Miserables is well worth seeing, no matter how familiar you are with the original.

Obviously, you have to have at least a tolerance of the musical format; if you are one of those sad cases who feels obliged to point out how 'unrealistic' it is for people to burst into song, and where is that music coming from anyways?, you might as well give this one a miss, and go back to not wondering about how Stallone never needs to reload, or why stupid victims are needed to advance the plot for almost every horror movie.

The rest of us can be astonished at just how well Catwoman, Gladiator and Wolverine can carry a tune, and marvel even more at the fact that they are not lip syncing to a pre-recorded track. The performances were captured live, while the singers used tiny earphones to listen to a piano accompanist out of microphone range. This way, the performers could set the tempo, the pianist could compensate, and then the orchestral score was layered in over top.

Now, there are plenty of movies it is worthwhile for even blind people to see, or hear at least, but I don't know if this is one of them. Musical purists might be better served by listening to the Broadway or London cast recording instead. Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) takes full advantage of the medium, and fills the screen with shots of both impressive physical scale (like the opening scene, where Jean Val Jean (Hugh Jackman) and his work crew have been moved from the stage musical's generic field labours to the herculean task of hauling a massive ship into drydock) and compelling emotion (Anne Hathaway's haunting rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, which, while not accomplished on the first take as was rumoured, was done in one take with absolutely no cuts).

The acting is uniformly excellent: Russell Crowe's Javert is full of conflicted menace, Hathaway's Fantine is relentlessly tragic, and Jackman's Valjean is as compelling as any of the iterations I've come across, especially during his Soliloquy. Being able to emote was a face 27 feet tall gives the filmic medium a distinct advantage, just as being able to follow them on a chase through the streets, or into the sewers of Paris is. None of the stars can belt it out of the park like a Colm Wilkinson (who appears as the Bishop), but getting a good singing performance out of an actor can be a lot easier than the other way around. If you don't believe me, the Brothers Gibb in Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Cub Band stand as exhibits A through C. At any rate, you end up with some tremendously moving scenes that stand up favourably to anything I've seen on stage. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter also do a wonderful turn as the larcenous and scene-stealing Thernardiers.

I took some exception to the insertion of a new song, Suddenly, as an obvious means of garnering Oscar momentum with an Original Song, but was mollified upon discovering that it was written by the original songwriters. And besides, it isn't as though it is a bad song, but I found myself being really critically minded towards its inclusion, what with the movie already running two-and-a-half hours and all. Les Mis was originally planned as a four hour movie, with the battle in the third act running 15 minutes on its own. As it sits, I think the film balances the epic and the intimate pretty much perfectly. Go, and bring a tissue or two.

No comments:

Post a Comment