Les Miserables

January 13, 2013

Les Miserables:

So: I had a general awareness of the plot beforehand – I’d been hearing about it for a while even before the film, and seen a few reviews recently. I didn’t have a prior attachment to the book or the musical, and I’ll probably be reading the book at some point, but more on that story later. I expect the book’s and the stage’s versions are far more complicated, and so I entirely bow to any beliefs that the plot was butchered, but, proceeding from only what I know:

I really enjoyed it. Musical film, like silent film, is generally forthright and simple; think of the plot of The Artist for example. The old reliable methods of dramatic film in conveying plot immediately are off-limits, and so all feeling is expressed directly through song. With that simplicity as a drive, the film’s two hours forty-five minutes layers simple-but-effective storytelling into a larger narrative, one where the pace never abates due to the flow of song.

It is inherently different from a stage production, I have to stress that. You don’t have to sing loud enough for the cheap seats – in fact, you can’t do that; the camera is right beside you and stage singing would come off as scenery chewing in an enclosed space. Makeup, hair, clothing – everything is different due to the viewer. This format changes the essential nature of the acting, and that might be part of the push-back on Jackman in the reviews – this isn’t a stage musical.

I honestly enjoyed his dramatic performance and believed his character.Overall it was refreshing to have a character make his main mistakes early on, change, find a new system of belief and hold to it throughout, rather than the usual try-succeed-fail-rise-succeed structure. I’m probably oversimplifying immensely, but it was a pleasant jolt to realise that Valjean confessing his identity wasn’t a dream to be dismissed but an admirable reality. Again, the medium of song simplifies things, and this even extends to his accepting a potential son-in-law he hasn’t met yet – barely met, in the case of his daughter. The stunts are interesting – all swiftly done, with the underemphasis associated with the limitations in action necessary on a stage.

I think stage direction is probably the biggest issue; while generally well handled, sometimes marvellously so, occassionally people were walking back and forth in a way that in stage space I suspect would be handled in a spotlight-aside, nullifying the already tenuous reality of the stage backdrop. On film, that is a lot harder to do, and can hardly be done all the way through. Second largest are the scene transitions – a flash of carriage wheels and you are in Paris! This is a both legacy of the stage production and a necessity of the film’s length.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine – a tragic character, all the more so because of how relatively brief her role is. However, the character gets excellent innings for the time she gets and Hathaway plays them to the hilt. The terror, and rage, and despair, and loneliness and hopelessness are all so strong. The forthrightness of song is what stops you from feeling cheated by the short span – Fantine’s songs are Fantine’s songs, and she can sing them by and for herself if she has to. Her reappearance is appropriately the climax of stage mutability in the film.

Russell Crowe definitely leans more on the dramatic rather than the operatic. He is the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-others in this equation of actors. In terms of prominent characters, Javert is the character one can get away with to play and sound so stiff and unyielding. As to whether that is the best way to play him, I leave entirely to those far more knowledgeable than I regarding this character. Amanda Seyfried was great, for what she got to do, which was very little, apart from ‘being in love’. I actually found kid-Cosette more interesting, but only slightly so.

Redmayne as Marius, the other half of the instant-mutual-unspoken-love-at-first-sight plot with Cosette, at least gets to be a revolutionary. Not having seen the Marilyn Monroe film that launched him to fame, I am unfamiliar with his work, but he did well. Plenty of love songs, plenty of revolution songs, and a nice acappella reprise regarding the death of his friends. I’m equally unfamiliar with ‘I’d Do Anything’ winner Samantha Barks, but I really liked Eponine, given that she’d known Marius for more than five minutes when forming an attachment and actually appeared to have grown emotionally since childhood. Finding out the nature of that growth is a main reason I’ll be reading the book. Also, she gets to do stuff. She is mostly just heartsick over a guy, but at least she has something going on, personality wise, as problematic as that is. I was somewhat disappointed at the abrupt disconnect from her parent’s subplot without apparent repercussion.

I’ll be blunt; I dislike the whole insta-love concept between Marius and Cosette. I’ll be interested to learn if that is an artifact from the book or a product of plot pressure. Either way, it has that saccharine-sweetness of Moulin Rouge, of characters singing to one another about how great being in love is without the slightest expression or manifestation of what that feeling is between the two or why it is so great. At least Sweeney Todd made it quite clear how creepy Anthony was and how messed up Johanna was when indulging in first-sight romance. Speaking of which, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter could pretty much have been playing their characters from Sweeney Todd if they were married, down to putting all sorts of things in the meat grinder. Comedy in the film, due to tone and pace, is nearly non-existent, so the Thenardiers are a massive release for all that pent-up emotion, and the layers of quiet physical comedy only film can be afforded via cuts and transitions are so much fun.

The revolutionaries in general were good. Enjolras and Gavroche in particular combined utter cynicism and idealism in a way that made them interesting to watch. Their time in a sharp-start in comparison to the woven histories of the others, and there is a risk of making the revolution just the setting for the denounement rather than part of it. I think they succeeded in tying it in through song, though even then they needed the last scene to send the message home. The barricade and the revolutionaries do look small for a screen production, as opposed to the centrepiece status I understand it has in the stage production. Again I bow to the experienced, but for me it emphasised how limited this revolution is and how badly it has failed when they’re the last barricade standing. The more cinematic barricade in the final scene is just that – cinematic, impressive, inspirational and awesome. The grubby cull of the revolutionaries in reality is reflected in their small barricade and small buildings – all the more sad.

The only problem I had with the fight scenes were the red-paint-equals death nature of the injuries. I understand that this also could be an artifact of the stage, but it primarily seems like a bid to chase the 12A rating. Historical violence is a tricky issue in that respect – however, long scenes with prostitution as their focus, on the other hand, really seems like it should be rated a great deal higher. There actually were twelve year olds in the showing I attended, and there were plenty of whispered explanations in that scene – the one to the child in front of me consisting of ‘She is crying because that man stole her money’. Yes. Nudity and sex are also tricky matters, and the grim reality sex work shouldn’t be excised from education but I’m fairly sure that graphic prostitution should bump the film up at least a grade from 12A. That, however, is simply my opinion.

The ending is quick which, given that it is a sugar-spun confection of Cosette-Marius sweetness, is good. It gets us to the resolution of Valjean, Fantine, Eponine and all the other beloved dead in the film. I don’t particular care for Cosette and Marius, as you may have guessed, but if this is the mandated happy-ending, it is thankfully an aside to the journey of the rest of the characters. It is a work of art in the most basic sense – it is flawed, but I want to learn so much more about what it is and where it came from and depth of the whole Les Miserables works when put into their various format, temporal, historical, authorial contexts. I don’t understand Les Miserables yet – I think any fan of it couldn’t have read this review and mistake that I do – but I do understand that it is important now, and I will seek out ways to learn about it and to know it better.

For anyone not at all interested in any of the above but who comes across it anyway: play a game matching up Valjean to Nolanverse Batman and Javert to Talia Al Ghul, and Fantine, obviously, as Catwoman. Extra points go to matching Liam Neeson’s Ras Al Ghul to Valjean in the 1998 film.