Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Agony of 'Les Misérables'

As for the new film version of Les Misérables, I wouldn't trust a reviewer unless he loved the musical (in all its sappy excess) as much as I do. So here's what I thought:

If you love the musical, you're going to at least like the movie. (You can stop reading my review now if you don't want any further spoilers.) The music and the story have been successfully transported to film. The major themes—redemption, forgiveness, and all that—are handled in an appropriately melodramatic and heavy-handed way. (This is a musical we're talking about.)

The scenes I liked best were ensemble scenes: "Lovely Ladies," "At the End of the Day," and "One Day More" stand out in my memory the day after viewing—these scenes seemed to best capture the energy and emotion of the good stage productions I've seen, while taking advantage of the medium of film and adding visual interest and depth. I also very much enjoyed seeing Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers: they brought the comic relief (much needed in this very earnest show), and their scenes were just dark enough.

Poor Anne Hathaway's presence in the film has been incredibly polarizing. I sort of understand the animosity: she's just so ... perfect and lovely, and maybe she seems a little smug. Often, she's too obviously acting when I see her on screen. However, I want to now give Hathaway her due. She was pitch-perfect as Fantine, both as an actor and as a singer. Melodrama suits her, and she has a lovely voice. The other female leads also did a fine job. Samantha Barks as Éponine turned in a Tony-worthy performance if not an Oscar-worthy one—clearly a professional. Why weren't more casting choices made like this one?

That is to say, the film's primary problem was in the area of casting—specifically the male leads. Much has already been written about Russell Crowe's singing inability, so there's that. (His singing voice reminds me of a Muppet doing a musical impersonation of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.) But can we talk about the Hugh Jackman problem? He's so likeable and well liked that I'm almost afraid to say this, but ... he was not good in this movie. His singing voice was reedy and too weak to carry the role of Jean Valjean. It's almost like he was forced into the wrong key.

And Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Oy vey. Why?! He seems like a nice boy. But for one thing, his hairstyle (the same onscreen as off) annoys and confuses me. For another, his singing voice is not up to Les Mis. Just about every other student revolutionary in the film was a better singer. Why wasn't, say, Aaron Tveit, who played Enjolras, cast in the more important role? Tveit can sing!

Another missed opportunity was in the area of scale. I've named some ensemble scenes that took advantage of the medium of film, but not all of them did. A lot of the scenes—particularly the battle scenes on the streets of Paris—were far too sound-stage-y, and the lengthy closeups on singing actors got claustrophobic. Occasionally, I had too look away from the screen because I just couldn't look up Jackman's nose for one more second. (Keep in mind, I saw the film in XD.) I thought the film's beginning sequences—for instance, the prison scenes and the scenes of Valjean wandering the countryside after his parole—promised some filmic grandeur that later scenes failed to deliver.

I'm looking forward to seeing this movie again, on the small screen—to which it might be better suited. Oh yes, I will be buying the DVD. But I'll keep listening to my Broadway cast recording.

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