Wednesday, January 9, 2013

'Les Misérables' (2012) directed by Tom Hooper, 8th January 2013

'Les Misérables' certainly doesn't skimp on the miserable.  The movie is adapted from the enormously popular musical of the same name by Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg,  which is itself adapted from the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo.  It's a story of the dispossessed and the destitute desperately and tragically fighting against an uncaring, cruel society.  Our protagonists find themselves kicked into the dirt over and over again by cruel and unbending justice, exploitation of women, child slavery and eventually the sheer might of the military.  Some of them survive their battles, some don't.  All of them end up physically and mentally crushed. 'Miserable' is the exact right word for it.  

For the most part this is an achingly serious film about universal injustices.  But, obviously, 'Les Misérables' is a musical, and not just a musical where the characters occasionally break into song, everything is sung.  The plot is a sequence of (for the most part) solo numbers, sung directly into the camera.  The film isn't embarrassed in the slightest about this, and this gung-ho attitude makes it easy to admire.  The audience's familiarity with the musical makes this weirdness easy to overlook, but seeing characters bare their souls in such an intimately shot way is like few other things I've seen in the cinema.  A point of comparison that springs to mind is Dreyer's 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928), a  silent film that is entirely carried on the facial performance of Maria Falconetti.

Musicals are generally filmed by recording the soundtrack and playing it back on set for the actors to lip-sync along to.  'Les Misérables' dispenses with that, having the actors singing live on set while they perform, allowing them to more easily incorporate facets of the song into their performance and vice versa.  It works fantastically well. Musicals require multiple layers of artifice to function, relying on an audience to willingly suspend their disbelief.   But, by stripping away some of the barriers between actors and the audience, the characters of 'Les Misérables' become more personal and much more emotionally accessible than in an average musical.

Much has been made of the decision to cast actors rather than professional singers in these parts, and much snobbery has been aimed in the direction of the actor's singing.  I really couldn't give a toss about the technical perfection of a character's vocals.  If the underlying acting performance is solid and moving, that's what's important. If I was reviewing a performance of the musical in concert my priorities might be different, but this is a very different beast.  On stage an actor must play to the entire theatre, working in the knowledge that their voice is the leading factor; people sitting in the back rows simply won't be able to see any physical subtlety.  But a large part of the power of this adaptation is entirely conveyed through physical (especially facial) subtlety.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.
A major highlight is Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean.  Jackman is clearly enthused about getting to work out his pipes on camera, and throws himself both physically and vocally into the role.  His physical transformation over the course of the film, from bearded, filthy prisoner, through to dapper man about town, back to filthy again and so on is impeccably conveyed through Jackman's body language and eyes, which grow sadder and wearier the as the film goes on.  This is a character that makes several huge sacrifices for others, yet Jackman's humble performance prevents him from becoming unrelatably pious.  

The opponent of this intrinsically good and likeable man is Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe.  I say opponent rather than villain because Javert is not a evil man, rather someone whose inflexible moral code naturally sets him in opposition to our hero.  Crowe has been given some stick for not being able to sing as well as the rest of the cast, but I thought he was great.  Javert is introverted, sexually and emotionally repressed, a man who is literally tightly buttoned up for most of the film.  For a character whose beliefs are under this much stress to be marching around singing beautifully doesnt' add up. Crowe sings his songs in a growl, injecting a testosteroney fierceness that feels more appropriate than soaring operatic extroversion.  What Crowe excels at is to showing us Javert's inner turmoil when reality repeatedly fails to conform to his beliefs, and if you've nailed that, then you've nailed the performance.

Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert
Every actor in this film must push themselves into a heightened emotional state, and there's no-one that comes out of it looking silly.  A few of the performances are less affecting than others, but this is primarily a problem with the material than the film.  Amanda Seyfried as Cosette is perfectly fine, but it's a thankless role with little of the depth of the other characters.  Eddie Redmayne's Marius falls into the same trap, being slightly less boring than Cosette, but in no way someone we're eager to find out more about.

Despite all these fine performances, it's Anne Hathaway's Fantine that effortlessly stands head and shoulder above everything else in this film.  Fantine is a relatively minor part, but it's this astonishing performance that neatly encapsulates everything the film is trying to say.  She's desperately trying to provide for her daughter, but is victimised by society and slips into a Hogarthian nightmare.  She loses her job, her hair, her teeth and finally her hope in an  heartwrenching sequence that's like a musical version of 'Requiem for a Dream'.

Anne Hathway as Fantine
As the last gasps of her hope slip away, she sings 'I Dreamed a Dream' in one unbroken shot closeup.  I've always seen 'I Dreamed a Dream' as an impossibly sappy, self-indulgent song, soporific talent show shite.  But, in one unbroken take with the camera inches away from Hathaway's face she gasps torturously as she sings, weeping with a crushed vulnerability.     The effect is the illusion that she's making up the song as she goes along, realising bitterly that everything she's singing is the truth. This window straight into a character's soul is what Hooper must have had in mind when planning this, and it's an instantly unforgettable moment in cinema.  It's so amazingly good that it makes the rest of the film suffer in comparison.

While the tactic of placing a camera right in Hathaway's face pays off in spades, the film keeps using the same trick over and over again.  Each time the effect is diminished, until by about the two hour mark you're desperate for something more dynamically visual.  This is one of the most successful musicals of all time, and you sense that Hooper wants to give us something we can't get on stage, namely the facial performances of the actors.  But practically every song is a character baring their miserable, tortured soul to the camera in closeup and there's so much emotion to deal with that you find yourself becoming a bit numb.   There are some more cinematically adventurous moments, notably during 'One More Day' when we neatly cross-cut between each character singing a segment of the song.  But with the film having proved that it can stay visually interesting if it wants to, it slips back into a neverending series of closeups.

Helena Bonham-Carter and Sacha Baron-Cohen as the Thernardiers and Isabelle Alan as young Cosette
This all adds up to an obstinately uncinematic experience.  Surely there's enough going on in 'Les Misérables' to fill the screen with fascinating visuals? One consequence of sticking closely to the stage version is that when a sequence begins, we're going to stay with that set for as long as is humanly possible.  These sets are curiously stagey and claustrophobic rather than cinematic.  The worst offender is the street set for the barricade sequence; we spend much of the second half of the film in  one street corner which quickly becomes very dull to look at.  Another factor that adds to this sense of claustrophobia is that the film is shot in 1.85:1.  It's an understandable enough decision, it'd be difficult to compose as many tight closeups in a wider aspect ratio.  But the epic nature of the film, in particular the opening and revolution sequences are crying out for more room to breathe cinematically.

Aaron Tviet as Enjolras
But even leaving this aside this is a film with big narrative problems, most of which stem from the musical its based on.  The first half of the film is impeccably constructed, with a tight focus on Jean Valjean and Javert, whose relationship is a near perfect example of how unsympathetic authority can conspire to crush a good man.  It's a personal story, and this, tied with Fantine's downfall is compelling and utterly moving.  

By the time we get to the Paris and the revolution I was ready to see a new society being built, but it's at this moment that the film introduces to us to a load of new characters that simply aren't as interesting or complex as Valjean and Javert.  The importance of social change is lost at the very moment we need to care about it most, and even worse, is sidelined for a romantic relationship between two cyphers.  Cosette and Marius' intense love is what fuels this half of the play rather than revolution, a love that exists purely because the story says it does.  Maybe I'm being a bit cynical, but I want characters that fall in love for reasons a little more complex than that they've glanced at each other across a crowded street.  

Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius
This means the story winds up in an extremely unsatisfying place.  We're masterfully shown through Fantine's fall that life is utterly terrible for the poor.  Then we're told why it's so terrible, that this fantastically unequal, starving society is the creation of the aristocracy, thus justifying the revolution that we implicitly want to see succeed.  The revolution heroically fails and the young, charismatic revolutionaries become martyrs.  After this, the 'happy ending' is a son of the aristocracy rejoining the bourgeoisie and dragging Cosette into his social class.  

I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough.  It's the anti-'Casablanca'!  When that film tells us that 'the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world' it's a fantastic line because it's absolutely right!  Just saving Cosette from poverty isn't good enough.  What about the starving masses?  What about the thousands of victimised Fantines out there? We end with nothing changed in the slightest other than Cosette living a slightly more comfortable existence.

Anne Hathaway has that Oscar in the bag.  
It's not that 'Les Misérables' isn't worth seeing, it's ambitious in all the best ways and works as a film in its own right rather than simply as an appendage of the musical.  The numerous problems with the cinematography and more cruciallythe narrative don't cancel out the amazing performances.  It's butt numbingly long, but it's just about able to justify its length.  And, above all that, it is literally worth sitting through the entire thing just to see Anne Hathaway sing 'I Dreamed a Dream', a moment that reminds you how effective the spell that cinema weaves can be.


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