Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables (2012) – Review

Review: Les Miserables is highly ambitious and surely to be loved by diehard fans, but as a film its utterly tedious, agonizingly so, and overlong. The film is about the convict Jean Valjean who breaks his patrol and spends his life in hiding from a determined police inspector Javert. A kind Bishop saves Valjean and he devotes his life (while still in hiding) to making amends. After Fantine, a former employee of Valjean’s, is unknowingly fired and left in destitution, he makes her a promise on her deathbed to care for her young daughter Cosette. In the meantime years after the French Revolution, the poor of France still find themselves in harsh conditions. A few revolutions plan to insight another revolution. One of these revolutionaries, Marius, falls in love with a now grownup Cosette. All the characters’ paths converge in Paris on the brink of revolution.

Director Tom Hooper seems to have firstly set out to make a very literal adaptation of the stage musical. The results are both wonderfully grand and disastrous. The film is an epic, as Hooper takes on the visuals on a massive scale (which he sets the tone for with the film’s first images). The sets, costumes, performances, musical numbers and their choreography, everything is big. Hooper also recorded all the singing live on set, which pays off. The overall production is very impressive.

Hooper plays the musical as if it were on the stage, with all the musical numbers included as well as the dialog sung (for the most part), yet stages the film within the real world. On stage this works because everything is very theatrical and the audience can suspend their disbelief given the atmosphere of the medium in which they are viewing the play. However, in cinema, this results in many moments feeling incredibly strange (particularly when conversational dialog is sung) and even silly, taking the audience out of the film and the drama, making the whole artifice more apparent (which is not what Hooper was going for).

Hooper also has the actors engage the camera often breaking the fourth wall, which is strange as the film seems to be mostly firmly rooted in reality (as much as it can be with characters perpetually singing). It is as if Hooper wants his characters’ dramatic moments to be even more impactful for the audience (as if the great performance on top of the singing about said emotions was not enough – the audience must be jarred out of their apathy).

Cinema as a medium is built on close-ups on star actors – their performances mostly coming from their ability to emote with their faces and eyes. The problem with doing a literal rendition of a stage musical (in which most audience members cannot see the faces of the actors and thusly must be told their emotions) is that having musical numbers on top of sung dialog about emotions (and even mundane less important details) becomes overly redundant and in the case of this film tedious to a fault because the audience is already getting all the emotion from the actors’ faces and performances. The best films are told visually and economically through character moments. With this film, the actors tell the audience what they are feeling with their faces (as Hooper uses a ton of close-ups to great effect) but then decay the emotion into meaningless tedium by also singing about it at length. It just burns out the audience, because they understand what the characters are feeling through the performances and visuals, the continuous singing ever expanding on those feelings becomes too much and boring taking the audience out of the film (but again, diehard fans will probably love how true the film is to the source material because they love the music and every word of every song and piece of sung dialog).

The film probably would have worked better and been just as, if not more, powerful if it was adapted to a more film-friendly narrative form. Really, just be having the conversational dialog spoken as opposed to sung would have helped tremendously (as this is the biggest culprit in diminishing the dramatic returns). Also, using the best musical numbers to reinforce the characters and dramatic moments of the narrative would have given particular character moments and key narrative moments much more power and resonance. This could have (and should have) been told in much more economical way.

That is not to say that the film did not have any great moments, it does. Fantine’s dismal reflection of her current place after she gives in and takes money for sex is incredibly moving and dynamic. It is a showstopper (hear it here). There are also many other great visual and musical moments, but again as the film goes on the tedium only grows which renders many of these moments only brief bright spots in an ultimately tiring endeavor.

Getting back to film as an economically told narrative medium. This film is overly long (at 157 minutes it’s runtime is not ridiculously long, especially since it is an epic) due again to the laborious nature of this adaptation and the pacing is also slow. The narrative probably could have benefited from lesser musical numbers and characters being trimmed. But, the main issue really resides with Hooper’s adaptation not translating to the medium well as it is.

Les Miserables will likely please its fans (those that adore the musical), but ultimately is an arduous cinema experience despite all its fantastic elements.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Tom Hooper is a great director (as can be seen with his very good film The King’s Speech), but Les Miserables is almost a complete failure as a film. Well, maybe failure is not the right word as Hooper’s visuals are wonderful and iconic in many ways. He is able to get great performances from his cast. His blocking and use of a kinetic camera are also fantastic. However, the film and all this good work are completely destroyed by Hooper’s decision to literally adapt the musical. It simply just does not work in this medium. Being a slave source material is most often not a good thing, as the source is created and perfected for a different medium and thus when translated to a new medium changes need to be made for it to best play in that new medium. For example Joe Wright’s adaptation of Anna Karenina from earlier this year – (Whether or not it worked) Wright has taken the classic novel and turned it into something completely different – a visceral visual experience. He took the story and made something new for the different medium. It is ambitious and refreshing. The same can be said for Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (which was also a very successful stage musical first). Wise made possibly the greatest film musical of all time by taking the stage play and making it something different, a wonderfully visual experience taking full advantage of what film offers as a medium. In both these cases, the directors took the source material and made changes to take advantage of what cinema offers as a storytelling medium. Hooper tries to make a film that is the stage musical first and also a grand visual experience second, and I think it failed. I do look forward to what Hooper does next, but I found Les Miserables very disappointing.

Danny Cohen’s cinematography is for the most part wonderful, as he showcases the bleak reality of both the film’s narrative and the literal world in which the character reside. There is also a beauty to his lighting; particularly in the way he is able to capture the face of the actors. Their faces are lite allowing the audience to fully capture their emotions even when (as they often are) shrouded in darkness. However, Cohen and Hooper also have some awkward framing in a few shots that is noticeable (again taking the audience out of the experience). It is minor and only happens a few times, but still feels strange (most notably is the framing of Valjean taking with Marius after Marius has recovered – right as the scene begins the frame is tilted to the right for seemingly no reason). Eve Stewart’s production design is maybe the best aspect of the film (though, Fantine singing I Dreamed a Dream is right there too). Her sets are grand in scale, but also seem to feel very intimate. Her work fits the overall tone of the film very well.

The performances are strong throughout the film, however that said some of the singing leaves a little to be desired. None of the singing is bad, but some of the actors are noticeable stronger leading one to question why all the main parts were not cast with strong singers. In smaller roles, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, and Isabelle Allen (who is adorable) are brilliant and mostly outshine the leads. Anne Hathaway steals the entire film as Fantine. Her singing, as stated a couple times above is magnificent. However, as good as her singing is, it is her heartbreaking performance that resonates the most. She just goes to a different level. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried and Russell Crowe are good dramatically, but their singing is greatly overshadowed by others. Hugh Jackman is powerful and entirely dramatically engaging as Valjean (despite the fact that he practically looks like Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride near the end of the film). However, his performance is destroyed completely by the tedious nature of the film, so much so that it almost becomes laughable, which is really too bad as it is among his best work.

Summary & score: In many ways Les Miserables is a great film, but in more ways it does not work. 6/10

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