REVIEW: Les Misérables [2012]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 158 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2012 (USA)
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director(s): Tom Hooper
Writer(s): William Nicholson & Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg & Herbert Kretzmer /
Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (stage musical) / Victor Hugo (novel)

“I dreamed a dream”

I tried to tackle Victor Hugo‘s massive literary masterpiece Les Misérables years ago only to find myself stuck two hundred pages in and our book club disbanded after learning my poor progress was actually second best among the lot of us. Suffice it to say, none of the words I caught sunk in to give me any sort of footing before sitting down to Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper‘s musical adaptation. This was a welcome development, though, as going in fresh seemed the best way to let the music and scale transport me to early 19th century France. A bombastic epic that will break your heart before its end, Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) quest for redemption from God plays against a revolution as love looks to break the chain of political, legal, and emotional tyranny.

Originally set up in Paris in 1980, the novel was adapted for the stage with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Finding its way into the hands of producer Cameron Mackintosh, it continued in London and on Broadway to become one of the most successful theatrical musicals ever. Fast-forward to 2012 with a William Nicholson screenplay based upon Herbert Kretzmer‘s English-language lyrics and you have one of the year’s most highly touted films. Hugo’s fourteen hundred pages are distilled into three-hours, its music perfectly encapsulating the desperation and tumult of the era. And while its opera-like, sung-through nature took a bit for me to get used to, stirring renditions of “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Red and Black”, and “One Day More!” will have your adrenaline pumping.

Full of atmosphere, intricately detailed sets dripping with authenticity, and a cast of actors leaving everything onscreen, Les Mis is a work of art. I really don’t see how anyone can question this fact. I do, however, acknowledge that it is not for everyone. Actually, it may not even be completely for me. Sprawling through two decades in the life of Valjean as he runs from the law and its persistent jailer Javert (Russell Crowe), the work is dense with content and lacking many opportunities to relax without the threat of missing some integral detail. Sitting down to watch what becomes a tale full of depressing tragedy is a daunting task when the gravitas comes from quivering lips, tearful eyes, and wails of pain rather than joyous frivolity. It’s powerfully bittersweet and full of heart-wrenching revelations.

But this does have a way of endearing itself to me as well. I’ve always been a proponent of drama being the quickest way to the soul. How can you not empathize with a hero branded as a dangerous criminal for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew, now beaten and broken to the point of making the hyperbolic label true? Only a kindly bishop (played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Valjean in London and New York) shows him the compassion he needs to be reborn. Retreating inside himself to discover who he really is, Valjean decides to forsake his name and escape to become someone new by repenting for past transgressions. While noble and just, salvation still remains out of reach with Javert’s unyielding pursuer serendipitously staying close behind.

Broken into three acts, these two adversaries provide the film’s structure by cutting it at their three collisions. Heavy-handed in contrasting motivations, Valjean honorably shows restraint every time Javert gives no mercy. Who is the villain? Who truly is evil and who good? Les Mis hinges on their inevitably intertwining fates. It’s a vindictive chase through France asking for a reconciliation of compassion against duty—something only Valjean has the capacity to do after finding God. Redundant and obvious as this cat and mouse battle is, it does allow for the inclusion of supporting characters to flesh out the country’s turmoil and the glimmer of hope barely alive amidst the dark threat of complete destruction. Street urchins, con men, and idealistic students alike, each plays a part in the metaphorical look at a nation divided.

Valjean is a man of the people; saving the young daughter (Isabelle Allen‘s Cosette) of a dying prostitute he unwittingly helped create (Anne Hathaway‘s Fantine). Javert is the governmental regime; so staunch in his duties he cannot step back to understand they’re rooted in skewed logic. They embody the revolution depicted in act three as the Friends of the ABC build their barricade to overthrow a tyrant—slaves standing tall against their oppressors. It’s a fight for justice on a grand scale where Valjean’s has inspired us on a more personal level. And through it all prevails the love of a now grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and a revolutionary all but fated to die on the battlefield (Eddie Redmayne‘s Marius). Only through love can the future of France be more than one consumed by blood.

Add in the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) for comic relief as bumbling thieves forever caught in the action; the immovable strength of Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) willing to give his life for his country; and Éponine (Samantha Barks) and Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) giving youthful passion and sacrifice and you get an idea of how big this world is. We’re humored by “Master of the House”, invigorated by “One Day More!”, and shattered by “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own”, each performance matching the music’s resonating power to diminish all artifice. Hooper makes sure to get in close whenever he can, letting the actors project their emotions and force us to give in to the overarching themes rather than be caught inside the impressive sets. We enter through their eyes and lose ourselves within their voices.

It may be overwrought, emotionally crippling, impossibly manufactured, or all of the above, but you cannot deny its impact. Jackman is as good as you’d think he’d be at home with song; Baron Cohen brilliantly adds laughter through indifferent quips under his breath; and Crowe improves once allowed to sing rather than talk in a musical lilt. Huttlestone is unforgettably in humor and sorrow; Barks gives a three-dimensional turn as Éponine tries to distance herself from the past; and Redmayne proves one of the most authentic performers of the lot. Outside the musical crescendos, crane shots through masses of extras, and elaborate period realism, though, it’s Hathaway who steals the show with one song. Les Misérables should garner a lot of award consideration and Supporting Actress is one it deserves to win.


photography:
[1] ANNE HATHAWAY as Fantine in “Les Misérables”, the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 27th year. Helmed by “The King’s Speech’s” Academy Award®-winning director, Tom Hooper, the Working Title/Cameron Mackintosh production stars Hugh Jackman, Oscar® winner Russell Crowe, Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[2] HUGH JACKMAN as Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables”, the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 27th year. Helmed by “The King’s Speech’s” Academy Award®-winning director, Tom Hooper, the Working Title/Cameron Mackintosh production stars Jackman, Oscar® winner Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
[3] AMANDA SEYFRIED as Cosette and EDDIE REDMAYNE as Marius in “Les Misérables”, the motion-picture adaptation of the beloved global stage sensation seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries and in 21 languages around the globe and still breaking box-office records everywhere in its 27th year. Helmed by “The King’s Speech’s” Academy Award®-winning director, Tom Hooper, the Working Title/Cameron Mackintosh production stars Hugh Jackman, Oscar® winner Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Seyfried, Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham © 2012 Universal Studios. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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