Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Misérables


Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is granted parole after 19 years in prison for stealing a piece of bread. Finding it difficult to seek employment due to his status as an ex-convict, he is taken in by a bishop, whom he ends up robbing out of desperation. Caught by the authorities, he is brought back to the church only to be set free after the bishop lies on Valjean's favor, which the latter sees as an opportunity to start anew. Eight years later, he becomes a mayor running a factory where single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) earns a living. Victimized by the ever present phenomenon known as workplace politics which leads to her unemployment, she resorts to prostitution and almost ends up in jail after an altercation with an official. Valjean takes the liberty of taking care of her daughter, who grows up to be the lovely Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), but they are forever hounded by the persistence of Javert (Russell Crowe), a strict enforcer of the law who has made Valjean's recapture for breaking his parole as his raison d'etre.

The narration of the story could go on forever, given how two flash forwards of almost a decade each are involved, ending up without a review. Oh yes, a review. Fine. This is the best piece to crossover from musical theater to film. Ever. Most musicals adapted onscreen either fail most critics or the box office because they do not offer anything extra. They are just transferred from one medium to another, which is why most die hard fans have the propensity to tear the outcome to shreds. It is hard to contend with theater, and it is rare for a movie to outdo its original onstage material. For Les Misérables, perhaps it could be argued that it at least gets even. Besides, it has just raised the bar for movie musical adaptations as a whole. Of all the musical theater adaptations done in the last decade, perhaps only Chicago comes close.

What is noteworthy is how elements unique to film are utilized to carry over a scene from stage to screen without losing much intensity. The editing of the film is remarkable, from the well-crafted transitions, for example, from Javert's Suicide to Marius' Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and from from Valjean's Soliloquy to the chorus' At the End of the Day, all the way to the montage featured in the same musical number effectively depicting who are being alluded to in the title. Even though the impact produced by seeing a live musical is not duplicated, that lingering feeling of empowerment and inspiration as an effect of seeing something great do stay even hours after watching.

The characters either start speaking the words before bursting into song or sometimes just begin to sing out of the blue. Aside from Russell Crowe, everybody else does this without much awkwardness. You do not see actors singing, but rather real people airing their grievances against the world with the aid of beat and melody. However, it is rather obvious that not all people are that tolerable of musicals, and I know a lot of them who would fall asleep five minutes into the show. Musicals will always choose an audience. If you get dragged into watching this and you are not a fan, at least do try to keep an open mind.

Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean: Bravo. I honestly could not think of any other mainstream actor who could do this role with such credibility. This is, after all, Valjean's journey to redemption and acceptance. His rendition of Bring Him Home might be his Achilles' Heel, especially the last note, but it would be difficult to find any other fault apart from that. He dives into the character and gives you a good portrayal of a man struggling not just with the law but also with himself. And while pretty much everything revolves around this one man's dilemmas in life, you do not get tired of him and even end up feeling empathy rather than annoyance for his attempts on a better life 

Russell Crowe as Javert: awkward. It is something unexplainable. His baritone seems fine,  but every time he opens his mouth, his voice brings along some unfathomable oddity that you simply could not shake off. Perhaps this is the reason why most of the big awarding bodies have chosen to totally ignore him; either because of that and/or Jackman, who makes him appear irrelevant every time they have a scene together.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine: that Oscar nomination is very well deserved. Just give it to her already! She has had a memorable year, comparable to Sandra Bullock's when she won her Academy Award. Besides, if you gave one to Jennifer Hudson based on vocal ability alone, why not hand one to Hathaway with acting ability as the bigger criterion? The role of Fantine is always associated with outstanding singers such as Patti LuPone and Lea Salonga, and vocal prowess such as theirs is indeed a requisite in theater where large movements need to be complemented by strong vocals to achieve a spine-chilling effect, given that not everyone could afford to sit in front of the stage to enjoy the medium as an intimate art form. In film, such barrier is eliminated, and the camera only had to focus on Hathaway's face for almost the entire duration of the song. Her voice might not elicit the involuntary shivers at once, but perhaps everyone would agree that she very well compensated for whatever was lacking through her acting chops. If you did not, at least once, see the misery in her eyes or feel the proverbial pain in every twitch of her face the whole time she was singing, then better have yourself checked. Maybe you were born an android.

The rest of the cast do amazingly well, but could only do so much given the short time allotted to them, which is one of the disadvantages of film as a medium of art restricted by the demands of the capitalist oriented industry in which it operates. They all have memorable moments, though, and for some, a competent rendition of a song such as Eddie Redmayne's Empty Chairs at Empty Tables as Marius and Samantha Bark's On My Own as Eponine. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette does not seem to have a power solo, but her duets do not deprive you of her sweet soprano either. Even the kid who plays Gavroche will catch your attention with ease, not to mention the tandem of Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers.

Les Misérables would probably remain to be THE movie musical to see for the next decade or so, unless Tom Hooper or another director (maybe even Rob Marshall if he gets to score another Chicago) is given another worthy musical to work with. For now, watch this film, not for the singing nor the acting, but rather for the universal story that is indisputably meant to serve as an inspiration regardless of what century you are in.

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