December 19, 2012 -- The long-running, award-winning sung-through musical play based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel “Les Miserables” finally made into theaters on Christmas Day (but I got to see it earlier than that). I found it to be a lot like most musicals, only more so, at close to three hours long. Like most musicals, it has one good song, “I dreamed a dream” and a few others that move the film along, but are not really memorable. Unlike most musicals, it has a great story and memorable characters.
Based on the megahit theatrical musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer, this sprawling film is directed ably by Tom Hooper and shot beautifully by Danny Cohen, the same duo that brought you “The King's Speech.” This is a very lavish production with wonderful sets and costumes. It looks like the producers spared no expense.
There have been numerous film adaptations of this classic Victor Hugo story, my favorite being the 1995 French film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. This film is hard to find, but worth the effort. I ended up buying the VHS tape version. Don't worry about the musical. In no time the DVD will be in a sale bin at your nearest discount store.
This film musical has been in the works since the late 1980s. The theatrical version won numerous awards, including about all the Tony Awards there are for musicals. Unlike most film musicals the singing was done on camera, instead of the usual practice of adding the singing tracks later in the production. I like that. It looks more like an actual musical instead of a lip-synching contest.
The only problem with the singing is the over-use of extreme closeups. All those great sets and scenery go to waste when all you can see on screen is a part of a person's face. The best of these singer-actors are Anne Hathaway, who has done quite a bit of singing, in “Ella Enchanted” and in animated films like “Hoodwinked” and “Rio.” The closeups on Hathaway, playing Fantine, were so extreme when she was heavily emoting, gasping and singing the film's one good song, “I Dreamed a Dream” that I was looking around inside her mouth to see if I could spot the missing teeth in there (there was gruesome scene just before this where she had a couple of teeth pulled, selling them to provide money for her child after she lost her job).
The other good voice belongs to Amanda Seyfried, who previously sang up a storm as the lead in “Mamma Mia.” Seyfried, who plays the key role of Cosette (the younger Cosette is played by Isabelle Allen, who looks like one of those Fanning girls). Seyfried can hit those high notes and her voice is clear as a bell. Give her a good song to sing and I do think she could make it a hit. Oh, and she can act, too. There are also some good singers in supporting roles in the film. The songs aren't much, but you can't blame the singers for that.
The lead role of Sean Valjean is played by the very talented and versatile Hugh Jackman (“Australia”) who can act, sing, dance, do action, comedy, romance, be a mutant Wolverine; whatever you want, he can do it. The guy that surprised me the most, though, was Russell Crowe (“Cinderella Man”) who did a nice job singing and playing the key role of the relentless, merciless cop, Javert. The tortured relationship between Javert and Valjean is what powers this story and this film doesn't skimp on that.
One of the big differences in the musical, as opposed to other adaptations of the book, is the greatly expanded role of two characters, the comic scoundrel Thénardier (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of “Borat”) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter of “The King's Speech”). These two small-time crooks keep popping up throughout the film, providing a bit of menace, but mainly much-needed comic relief.
We first see Valjean in a very impressive, special effects-loaded scene with a lot of other prisoners hauling a sailing ship into dock with ropes, singing one of the better songs in the musical, “Look Down.” Valjean is paroled after 19 years in prison in 19th century France for stealing bread to feed his family. Bitter, he steals silver from a kindly Bishop, but is pardoned by the Bishop who saves him from being returned to prison after he is caught by police. Valjean feels indebted to God and changes his ways. He breaks parole, changes his name, and becomes mayor of a small town and owner of a clothing business. Javert relentlessly tries to hunt him down.
After one of his employees, Fantine, tragically dies, Valjean agrees to take care of Fantine's daughter, Cosette. Although Valjean is once again on the run from Javert. Taking care of the girl Cosette gives his life purpose and both of them are happy. They end up in Paris during bitter revolutionary struggles. Cosette falls in love with a dashing revolutionary, Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne of “My Week with Marilyn”, another good singer). Javert is also in Paris. Valjean wants to leave France and go to England to escape Javert, but that would break Cosette's heart, so he, too gets swept up in the revolution, with Javert on the other side of the fight. They have two more fateful encounters.
This is a mixed bag of a musical. The story, and characters, are great, but the music is lacking. I think it would help a lot to have subtitles (or another source of lyrics) for the songs. Sometimes it is hard to understand the words. This seems a lot like an opera, loaded with melodrama and heavy emotions. Nothing succeeds like excess, it seems. It looks great with very rich production values. The performances are all very good. This is undoubtedly one of the most overrated films of the year, but it isn't bad. This film rates a C+.
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