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Les Miserables: The Song Remains the Same

by admin December 21, 2012 6:02 am
Les Miserables: The Song Remains the Same

For Drama Club nerds of a certain age, Les Misérables -- which premiered in London in 1985 and Broadway the year after that -- was likely a formative theatergoing experience, a mega-musical that married soaring anthems with elaborate stagecraft, giving it a grand sense of scale that blew the roof off the theater. You didn't just watch Les Miz... you became part of its world. In retrospect, it's easy to slam the musical for helping to launch the still-ongoing era of Blockbuster Theater, where budget-swollen shows frequently put more effort into the spectacle than the songs and story (looking at you, Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark). But almost three decades on, Les Misérables, adapted from Victor Hugo's sprawling 19th-century tome, remains a case where all of the elements are in harmony with each other. On their own, songs like "Who Am I?", "Stars" and "One Day More" are stirring; when paired with the revolving turntable set, the intricate lighting design and the building of the barricade, they become transcendent.

The power of Les Misérables is tied so heavily to its theatricality that a feature film version has always seemed unnecessary. (Frankly, the stage version is a hell of a lot more cinematic than a lot of contemporary movie musicals, particularly those helmed by a certain Mr. Rob Marshall, the butcher behind Chicago and Nine.) Because the play already seemed so epic in its scope, it doesn't need the kind of "opening up" that a film normally allows for. And, in fact, the first thing you notice about the long-in the-works Les Miz movie, helmed by The King's Speech director Tom Hooper, is how small it feels compared to the stage show. Even though Hooper makes regular and repeated use of swooping camerawork to lend the proceedings a sense of grandeur, the movie simply isn't as transporting as its stagebound counterpart. On the other hand, what a film camera can also provide -- and this is something that Hooper takes full advantage of -- is a level of intimacy that can be hard to achieve in a cavernous Broadway auditorium, particularly if you're peering down at the stage from the cheap seats high up in the rafters. This version of Les Miz communicates the characters' suffering to the audience in a very direct way, with the majority of the big solo numbers shot in tight close-up. (It's both an artistic and practical choice, as Hooper had the actors perform the songs live on set rather than dubbed in after the fact.) The result is a film that never quite replicates the overwhelming artistry of the musical as it exists on the stage, but delivers on its emotional heft.

I'll freely 'fess up to tearing up at several points throughout the movie, starting with Anne Hathaway's stirring rendition of one of the musical's most famous numbers, "I Dreamed a Dream." (That single scene -- which is filmed in one unbroken five-minute take -- is what will win her the Best Supporting Actress trophy come Oscar time, by the way.) In case you thought that was a Susan Boyle original, no it's actually the lamentation of factory worker-turned-disease-ridden-prostitute Fantine, who sells her body to pay for her young daughter Cosette's room and board at an inn run by the despicable Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively). Her plight brings her to the attention of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a former convict who has cast off his former identity and remade himself into a stalwart member of his new community. On her deathbed, he promises Fantine to care for her little girl, a vow he keeps even as his old jailer, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), renews his own commitment to bringing Valjean to justice. Years pass and Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried) grows up loved, adored and sheltered by her adopted father. But the world around them is changing, with a student-led revolution about to engulf the streets of Paris. One of these young angry men, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), catches Cosette's eye and love blooms at a most inconvenient time. Eventually Marius, Valjean and Javert all converge on the barricade, where the students make their final, doomed stand against the French army.

Although it faithfully adheres to the stage show in terms of content, the smaller scale of the film actually magnifies some of the flaws that have always been present in Les Miz, but are more easily overlooked in its theatrical version. For starters, the musical is severely frontloaded, with many of its most powerful and most memorable songs occurring in the first act, which spans Valjean's release from prions up through the night before the barricade is raised. (Just look at the Act 1 playlist -- "At the End of the Day," "Master of the House," "Red and Black" -- it's a murderer's row of earwormy showtunes.) By contrast, Act 2, which mostly encompasses the barricade attack, is marked by long, dull stretches of narrative and a spottier collection of songs (the teen ennui anthem "On My Own" excluded, of course) before recovering with a rousing climax. And while Seyfried and Redmayne are both well cast as Marius and Cosette, there's no hiding the fact that the characters' blander-than-white-bread romance, another big second act storyline, is tedious in the extreme. (Let's just say there's a reason why everyone is Team Éponine -- the lovestruck daughter of the Thénardiers, played wonderfully here by Samantha Barks -- rather than Team Cosette.)

But Les Miz: The Movie has problems of its own beyond what already exists in the text. While I appreciated Hooper's attempts to bring a more fluid visual style to the film, he struggles to develop a consistent rhythm. The "Master of the House" sequence, for example, is noticeably out of step with the comic timing of the song. The production design is also interchangeable, to the point where the entire musical appears to be taking place in the same three-block radius on the Parisian streets, even though it actually travels across the country. And last, but certainly not least, there's at least one major instance of miscasting in the form of Crowe, who has been handed what is arguably the musical's finest role and simply doesn't have the vocal chops to carry it off. It's not that Crowe can't sing, mind you... it's that he can't sing this particular character, who is written in a key that's out of his vocal range. Typically a supremely confident actor, the strain of this part is written all over Crowe's face throughout the movie; he's so busy trying to stay on key, he's unable to concentrate on his performance. Jackman fares better as Valjean, although Colm Wilkinson -- the actor who originated the role and who contributes a small cameo here -- has no need to worry about being usurped as the character's defining voice. Purely in terms of singing, the rest of the cast ranges from serviceable to good, with only Hathaway and Barks (who played Éponine on stage in London) proving capable of going toe-to-toe with a trained Broadway performer. But then, that's a problem endemic to contemporary movie musicals; Hollywood has long since stopped cultivating performers like Gene Kelly and Chita Rivera who bring musical theater training to the big screen. Today, if you're a movie star who can just barely carry a tune, you're more or less guaranteed to chosen ahead of a more qualified stage performer.

And yet, even with all these caveats, watching the movie I once again found myself caught up in the music and emotional sweep of Les Miz. Chalk it up to nostalgia or sense memory if you must, but I think Hooper and the cast do get at the beating heart of the play and ultimately provide the kind of cathartic experience that continues to make the show a favorite well after other spectacle-driven musicals (like Miss Saigon and Sunset Boulevard) have mostly vanished into Broadway history. You'll continue to hear these people singing in your head long after you leave the theater.

(Note: Les Misérables opens on Christmas Day.)

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