Friday, December 28, 2012

Something to Sing About: “Les Misérables”

This is an extraordinary film, well worth seeing, especially if you’re a fan of musicals in general. I think it’s also a good choice if you’re open to experimental and avant garde film. It’s rated PG-13 for “suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements,” and that’s fair. This film looks at the lives of the forgotten, excluded homeless of early 19th century France, people drawn into worlds of violence, crime, and prostitution. It’s grim beyond belief but if you’re willing to indulge the production, by which I mean you’re willing to suspend your disbelief to theatrical proportions, you’ll find a stunning, cohesive work of art. Yes, I said it: this film operates as an art piece in its entirety; it creates a world where virtually every utterance is sung and sticks with its premise to the end. I think it succeeds much more than it doesn’t. Except for a few moments that dragged a bit, this production was stirring and engrossing and Hugh Jackman now seems in a class by himself: that rare bird who can act as well as he sings; he’s among the best of the best in both arenas.

Hathaway as Fantine brought low.
As I mentioned, the film is an entirely sung piece, like an opera, yet the songs are measured, some moments even intimate, pushing this Broadway musical into the world of cinema. A top-drawer performance by Anne Hathaway as Fantine will rend your heart. She’s a girl who was seduced and abandoned and works in a factory to support her little girl, Cosette. When she loses her job, she enters a downward spiral that’s harrowing and Hathaway carries the sequence like a true and substantial actress. I always knew Hathaway was a great star; I just wasn’t sure (until now) if she really had any chops. She’s got ’em.

Crowe as Javert
Russell Crowe as the obsessed, merciless Javert creates a character of which I wouldn’t have thought him capable; but in retrospect, it’s not totally surprising that this accomplished actor really can do anything. Terrific performances were turned in by Amanda Seyfried as the grown-up Cosette; Eddie Redmayne as Marius; and Samantha Barks as Éponine. And what more can I say about Jackman’s Jean Valjean? He delivers an emotional performance as he performs Valjean in the only way he could: by leaving everything on the table. It’s almost shocking to see an actor expose his whole being in such a way; and tremendously satisfying to be part of such an accomplishment. As a bonus, Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as M. and Mme. Thenardier are worth the price of admission. He’s the “master of the house,” she’s the mistress. They bring crime, the con, and chaos everywhere they go. The picture of them continuing to sing as they’re lifted and bodily ejected from a wedding (down a staircase, yet) is a sight to behold.

Isabelle Allen plays young Cosette
flanked by Bonham-Carter and Cohen.
Hats off to cinematographer Danny Cohen and the entire art direction staff. They’ve delivered a visual feast, hands-down the most extraordinary art direction you’ll see in forever. As for director Tom Hooper, I have to admire the sheer guts of any director who’d even consider taking on this project. Before seeing it, I’d swear it couldn’t be done. As I said, it’s not for everyone, but if you and your teens approach this with an open heart, there’s plenty here to feast upon. While I was in the theater, I watched previews for yet another Star Trek movie as well as another Tom Cruise action film. I’m sure they’ll both be enjoyable, but these are ultimately safe films, risking little, retreading well-worn material. Les Misérables is unlike anything you’ve ever seen at the movies, completely fresh and unique, which is a bigger deal than you may realize.

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