Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Misérables

Staring at the Castle in the Cloud

Director Tom Hooper charges ahead from his Oscar winner The King's Speech (and a personal favourite film in The Damned United), with an ambitious adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a story that has had countless of musical stagings, with most people holding dear to their favourite interpretation of characters and scenes. Boasting a stellar star studded A-list ensemble, Hooper's version has ingredients that makes it Academy Awards contender, although the challenge may seem to be getting audiences to embrace this glossy version made for the screen, which is never easy for something that's been around for more than three decades.

Set in 19th century France spanning decades, we follow the life story of the thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) through his time under duress serving hard labour under the watchful eyes of cop Javert (Russell Crowe), the latter adamant that the ol' leopard can never change its spots during the former's parole, only for Jean to be touched by religion when he was forgiven, and given a new lease of life to do good. And I guess you probably know the drill by now, that Jean goes on to be a successful businessman, still being pursued by Javert, encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whom he saves, which the story going into the second chapter of saving Fantine's daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), before making another quantum leap when Cosette, now played by Amanda Seyfried, discovers true romance with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of the student leaders on the cusp of launching another revolution.

It's pretty much of an endurance marathon sitting through close to three hours, where unlike a musical or a stage play, you'd get an intermission. For starters it takes some getting used to, because every spoken word is sung (yes I know it's a musical) almost back to back, with the multitude of recognizable tunes from Work Song to Do You Hear The People Sing sung by the cast members, who have been put through singing lessons, otherwise one can guess how this would turn out if sounding less than professional. Hugh Jackman was fairly inconsistent in delivery, while Russell Crowe proved that he can't do this full time, since his Javert almost always came off quite one-note, and having a distinct lack of feel for the character. Anne Hathaway on the other hand, nailed it spot on with her I Dreamed a Dream, and is just about one of the best things in the film.

Film as a medium to present musicals have always been a fascinating journey, because of the characteristics that come with the medium. With film, it allows for expansive sets to be constructed, taking on a more three dimensional feel to the story telling since it's not just being on stage in front of you. Camera movement helps to provide spatial content, with jump cuts also producing an equivalent effect if necessary to move the narrative from location to location in double quick time.

But while the medium had opened up space, Hooper took on an intent to allow audiences a different experience, in putting us up close and personal with the performers. This is something one rarely gets in a staged musical because even the first row is a distance away. Hooper puts us just next to the characters with his plenty of close ups, that we probably get to see every facial expression and twitch as the characters express themselves through song. So once the actors open their mouths, we're put right there in the thick of the action, whether you'd like it or not. It makes for an engrossing watch, but for the quality art direction and lush production values to be appreciated, your eyes have to quickly dart around before the next musical number comes on.

You'd have your own personal favourite scenes from the musical, and I have three - with the three way romance between Cosette, Marius and Eponine (Samantha Barks) which is ever so brief but no less making a tremendous impact, having Jean Valjean go up against Javert in every instance to allow one to determine whether Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe would fare better than the other when they sing, and the limited scenes in which Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter make their appearance as the thieving Thenardiers, providing comic relief for the very heavy themes and story line involving one man's redemption, rivalry, tragic romance, all against the backdrop of a student led armed revolt.

Not having the luxury of sitting through a live stage performance of this musical, Tom Hooper has done enough to drum interest to a level high enough to want to do so when Les Miserables comes to town the next time round. Meanwhile, make do with this lavish production meant for the screen, and be immersed in a world and story as first envisioned by Victor Hugo, and adapted from the Cameron Mackintosh musical. Recommended!

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