Friday, January 04, 2013

'Les Misérables' packs a powerful emotional punch

"Les Misérables," Victor Hugo's classic novel has been filmed numerous times, the first dating back to 1934, but the significance of this latest movie is that it is the first version of hugely popular musical version.

First staged in 1985, "Les Misérables" went on to become a global phenomenon and the second longest-running musical in the world behind "The Fantasticks." That it has taken this long for it to be adapted to the screen is surprising.

"Les Misérables," set in 19th century France, centers on Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a slave prisoner who has survived 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. As the film begins, he is a free, but marked man unable to rebuild his life. He breaks his parole and sets out to create a new life, but forever lives in fear of the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

In addition to being the first film version of the musical, this "Les Misérables" is noteworthy because all of the actors are singing live on camera. Traditionally, when making a film musical, the cast records their vocals in a studio and then lips syncs on the day of filming. By having the actors sing live, the emotions of the performance are very much present.

As a musical, "Les Misérables" is light on dialogue making it closer in spirit to an opera. Nearly everything is sung, which makes the fact that everyone is singing live all the more astounding.

Purists may complain that the vocals aren't as technically perfect as they would've been pre-recorded, but there's an immediacy and vulnerability to these performances that could only be created in the moment.

The intimacy of the show is increased by director Tom Hooper's choice to shoot most of the film in close ups. This changes the way many of the songs are sung. The actors no longer need to project to the back of the theater. Introspective lines that would have to be belted out to reach the balcony can be whispered and capture an emotional honesty that would be difficult to achieve on stage.

This choice pays off throughout the film, but never more powerfully than during Anne Hathaway's extraordinary version of "I Dreamed a Dream." Hathaway's Fantine has just succumbed to a life of prostitution as a means to support her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). The song represents her heart and spirit breaking. Hathaway's performance is raw, completely exposed and heart wrenching. It is hard to imagine anyone not being moved by it.

A now wealthy Jean Valjean comes to an ailing Fantine's rescue and vows to take care of Cosette. The story jumps ahead several years as the older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love at first sight with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of a group of students preparing a rebellion. This reluctantly pulls Jean Valjean into their conflict and exposes him to Javert.

Other characters include the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), con artists who temporarily cared for Cosette before Jean Valjean and who amusingly continue to pop into the story. Cohen and Carter provide the film its much needed comic relief. Their song "Master of the House," is very funny and comes in just when we need it as we've just received some heavy emotional punches.

The other key character is Éponine (Samantha Barks), who secretly loves Marius. She sings "On My Own," a beautiful ballad of unrequited love.

Everyone in the cast, many of which are not known for their singing, are strong and everyone gets their moment to shine. Jackman, who has sung on Broadway, gives an emotionally bare performance that shows the growth of a man from broken and lost to compassionate and selfless. Seyfried reveals an amazing vocal ability, particularly in a song towards the end. Redmayne sings a vulnerable version of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," a song for his friends lost in battle.

The weakest singer is Crowe, who, although his voice isn't bad, doesn't seem comfortable singing and appears to be struggling with singing live. Because of this, his performance while singing often suffers. He is strongest when not singing although his final song does have weight and power behind it.

Overall, this is a profoundly moving and sweeping rendition of the musical. Not only does it find a way to distinguish itself from the stage version, but it manages to be a complete and robust filmgoing experience in its own right.

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