Well, with Christmas done and 2013 rapidly approaching, it’s time to shift gears from family love and joy to drunken parties, empty resolutions, and bad decisions. As we prepare for the onset of the New Year, let us not forget what this season is really about: last minute Oscar entries. How could we forget about Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Misérables? Answer: we couldn’t. We might be blogging on the cheap for a painfully limited audience, but damn it, we’re professionals.
Les Misérables (2012)
The Plot: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has finally finished nineteen years of prison in early 19th century France. He’s released under strict parole, but an encounter with an über pious priest makes him decide to start a new life. He violates parole and establishes a new, legit identity. Hot on his tail, though, is Javert (Russell Crowe), an officer of the law who will not abide spiritual reinventions. The rest of the story focuses on Jean Valjean as he must make one difficult moral decision after another; people sing, people die, and the cast expands exponentially to include the following: Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a sad prostitute; Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s sad daughter; Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a sad, lovelorn revolutionary; Éponine (Samantha Barks), a sad, lovelorn revolutionary; Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen), a rambunctious thief; Madame Thénardier (Helena Bonham Carter), a rambunctious thief; and others.
It is important to note here that this is not an adaptation of the 1862 Victor Hugo novel of the same name; it is an adaptation of the 1980 Broadway musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel. There’s a difference. That having been said, this is not a musical as one might normally think of it. The musical is a form of theater that combines spoken word with song. The worst part of every musical is when someone is talking, but the music begins to well up and everyone in the audience thinks, “Oh, God, are we going to have another song?” That wasn’t a problem in Les Misérables because they sing everything. Every single word, with maybe a few occasional spoken lines. Les Misérables is song from start to finish. It’s practically an opera (although my musical expert friend informs me that it’s not quite opera).
So that’s impressive. Even more impressive, though, is that they sing everything live with the take. Traditionally, while filming a musical, the actors record the songs in a studio and then lip-sync on set. Knowing that, director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) let out a great big “Pfft, not me,” and told his actors to do all their singing on set. Fortunately for Tom Hooper, he was able to pull that off because he had an extremely talented cast. We all knew that Hugh Jackman could sing, but those of us who didn’t listen to Australian rock were surprised by Russell Crowe’s vocal capabilities. The dude can really belt it.
The challenge for these actors, though, is not just to sing, but to sing and act. If you give an actor a sentence and tell him to read it, he can do that, and he has a lot of control over how that sentence should sound. If you tell him to sing it to a set tune, then all the nuance or emotion that isn’t inherent in the words must be inserted in volume control and facial expressions. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe give incredible performances, layering so much extra meaning into their lines.
Their characters, too, are pleasantly old-fashioned. Jean Valjean is the quintessential French Romantic Hero, reminiscent of Cyrano de Bergerac in his unwavering morality. In a world preoccupied with anti-heroes, it is refreshing to get a Jean Valjean every now and then. He’s not perfect, as he does struggle with the moral decisions he makes and the costs inherent to them, but in the end he always does the right thing.
Even more rare and more refreshing, though, is Russell Crowe’s antagonist, Javert. The tendency nowadays is for writers and directors to get lazy with their villains. More often than not, rather than getting an engaging, complex character for a villain, you get a psycho whose character depth is that he’s crazy because he’s crazy (The Dark Knight, Skyfall, Lawless, 13 Assassins, Billy Zane’s The Phantom). That can work in some cases, but it usually doesn’t. Javert isn’t like that. He isn’t a run-of-the-mill musical villain, either. In fact, he’s not even villainous. He is simply a man doing his duty. Not only is that clear to the audience, but even Jean Valjean gets that. He even says it a few times. Javert is an antagonist who isn’t a villain, and you just don’t get those very often. When you combine an honorable antagonist with a French Romantic Hero, you strike gold.
As wonderful as both Jackman and Crowe are (and yeah, they both deserve recognition for their performances), Anne Hathaway stole the show. She’s only in it for about fifteen minutes, but in those minutes she suffers more than any of the other characters combined (basically, she’s what the title is referring to). Y’all know that song she sings, right? It’s featured pretty heavily in the trailers… also it’s incredibly famous.
That song? One take. Camera moves in, Hathaway starts singing, and the camera doesn’t cut until she’s done. It’s really powerful. Remember, as I said, the actors did all their singing live with the take, so they have to act and sing at the same time… much like William Shatner always does. I usually try not to get too caught up in the whole “Oscar” thing; it’s not like I dress up in a tuxedo every Oscar night, shut off my phone, and clap for every winner. Seriously, that’s crazy. That having been said, I will be scandalized if Anne Hathaway doesn’t win an award for her role here. I will spill cocktail on my tux so that I’ll have to leave if Sally Field wins for Lincoln. Everyone (including my Abe Lincoln expert friend (yes, I have a musical friend and a Lincoln friend)) has been commending Field’s performance, but it seemed over-the-top to me. Hathaway doesn’t chew the scenery, she doesn’t ham-fist it, and she’s not too heavily pathetic. It’s a very raw and frank performance.
The cast is really what makes this film work. The material itself, being a Broadway musical from 1980 based on a depressing Victor Hugo novel, has a tendency towards sentimentality. “I dreamed a dream,” etc. The actors tackle it with such sincerity as to narrowly miss the devastation that is the rolling of my terrible eyes. In this case, I’m really passing the credit more towards the actors than to the director. Tom Hooper knows his craft, and may very well have dictated everything the actors did, but I think the source material gives less leeway to a director than a regular script. He had a lot of flexibility as a filmmaker with The King’s Speech and he got to do some pretty cool directorial stuff there, but here he has too much of a responsibility to filming the song and dance, capturing the grandeur of Broadway and the bleakness of Hugo’s novel. He also tries to give as much credit as he can to the costumes and set decoration. They’re impeccable, but I think his preoccupation with how great a job everyone else is doing hinders Hooper a bit. So I guess what I’m saying is, in a weird way, he should have been… more self-indulgent. Wow. I never thought I would encourage a director to be more self-indulgent, especially the director of a musical.
All in all, though, Les Misérables is not only a solid musical, but a solid film. As I believe I mentioned in last week’s article, I kind of hate musicals, but I really enjoyed this film. Musicals are tough to recommend, since people pretty much either love or hate them, but hopefully if you were on the fence about anything, you can take the last thirteen hundred words and make a decision. The point is, Anne Hathaway should win an Oscar, and I am now favoring Hugh Jackman over Daniel Day-Lewis, except he’ll never win because he’s Wolverine.
If you’re feeling antsy because we haven’t reviewed every Oscar movie yet, fear not. I think James is critiquing Django Unchained later this week, and someone should probably eventually see Zero Dark Thirty. I don’t know; it’s not really playing anywhere nearby.