Sunday, February 24, 2013

Les Misérables

movie review: in the picture

Les Misérables ***1/2

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Samantha Barks
Directed by Tom Hooper
Tagline: Fight. Dream. Hope. Love.

The global and timeless appeal of Victor Hugo's 1862 opus Les Misérables becomes apparent if you look at the number of adaptations the mammoth tome has yielded over the years. One of the most notable of these adaptations is Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's 1980 musical, the success of which can easily be gauged by the fact that it still continues to grace stages around the world. Now, after three decades of attempts, the long-running musical has finally been brought to the big screen in the form of Tom Hooper's film Les Misérables.

With a poignant story and a hugely successful musical at its backbone, the film certainly has the material to promise a stirring piece of cinema, but have the filmmakers managed to make good use of this potential?
Sung all the way through like an opera, the movie takes us to 19th century France as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison after serving a 19-year-long sentence for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to run. Unable to find work because of his criminal record, Valjean violates his parole, assumes a new identity, and becomes a successful man, but the uncompromising inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) remains in his pursuit. A turn of events lead Valjean to adopt Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child and Amanda Seyfried as an adult), the daughter of factory worker turned prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

The film then does a nine year time jump, as little street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) guides us to the 1832 Paris student uprising led by the rousing Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Student rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) becomes the subject of Cosette's affections, while the aching Éponine (Samantha Barks) unrequitedly pines for him.

Les Misérables is mostly well cast, with almost all the actors giving strong performances in their respective roles. Hugh Jackman carries the entire movie on his strong shoulders and mostly does it well, making good use of his musical theatre experience. Anne Hathaway's portrayal of the doomed Fantine and her moving rendition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' have quite rightly made her a shoo-in for the Best Supporting Actress honors this award season. Samantha Barks, who reprises the part of Éponine having earlier performed the role at the West End, gives a standout performance. The rebels, led by the gorgeous Aaron Tveit, are all suitably rousing, and young Daniel Huttlestone impresses whenever he is on screen.

Russell Crowe, however, seems a little out of place and is the most obvious chink in the movie's casting armor. He has the screen presence - as an actor, he might have been perfect for the role; as a singer, not so much. Make him act and sing at the same time and you get a performance that is awkward and stiff. And while there isn't anything wrong with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen's take on Éponine's parents, the crafty innkeepers who happen to have the waif Cosette in their care, but it isn't particularly exciting to see them take on oddball personas yet again, although they do their best to provide the film's requisite comic relief.

Perhaps a weakness of the movie lies in the character development (or lack thereof) of the ingénue Cosette towards the second half of the film. Amanda Seyfried simply gets overshadowed by the big performances that are going on around her, and the role isn't as strong or compelling as one would've hoped for a character that is so central to the entire movie. The Cosette and Marius relationship just might be the least engaging part of the film instead of the pivotal string that is supposed to tie the whole thing together, maybe because a degree of detail and nuance has been stripped from the story in its book to musical to film transition.

Much has been made of director Tom Hooper's decision to have the actors sing live (instead of recording the songs separately), and for the most part, it pays off. The singing might not be perfect, but the imperfections mostly help, not impede the emotional resonance of the songs. Other directorial decisions have varying results. The director's fondness for the shaky camera helps portray the chaos of the era, and his tendency to fixate on the close-ups of actors as they belt out the big numbers helps to relay the emotional intensity, but the same effects on repeat soon become tiring and monotonous.

So then why is Les Mis still a triumph? Because it evokes emotion. Its stirring performances and ability to reach its audience makes you overlook its flaws. The strength of a work must surely be based on how strong an effect it has on the viewers, and this film certainly knows how to reel the viewers in and make an emotional connection with the audience. The despair of the world portrayed in the film is consistently palpable, making the movie touching and even heart wrenching in places. And despite its two and a half hour run time, the developments are absorbing and the proceedings remain engaging.

Overall, Les Misérables is a powerful movie, but one you should watch with a box of tissue papers close at hand. Sometimes the movie works because of Tom Hooper, at other times in spite of him, but eventually it's the film's talented cast that pulls you into its harsh world and its moving story that leaves a strong impact.

– Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 24th February, 2013

No comments: