Theatricality Onscreen: A Review of ‘Les Miserables’ (2012)

One image I will never forget growing up is that of the sketch-like portrait of a little doe-eyed girl whose long, dark hair flows with the wind. It was something familiar to me, something which I had seen numerous times before. Such was the image of little Cosette on the cover of the VHS of the Broadway version of Les Mis we had and used to watch as children.

Needless to say, our family grew up familiar with Les Mis, and because of such a familiarity, I walked into the theatre at Robinsons Magnolia expecting so much from a film that wasn’t only a remake, but a movie that some would regard as ‘overhyped’.

I honestly don’t feel the need to tell the story, but I will do such for the sake of those unfamiliar with Les Mis and those who have yet to see the film. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a prisoner who has just been paroled after spending almost two decades behind bars for stealing a loaf of bread. By law, he is required to wear/display a yellow ticket of leave everywhere he goes which identifies him as a convict, and such proves to make adjusting to freedom difficult for Valjean, who must contend with society’s ridicule and scorn. He is offered shelter by the kindly Bishop of Digne (played by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean), whom he steals silver from. Valjean is caught but is saved by the bishop, who claims that the silver Valjean stole was a gift from him. He tells Valjean to use the silver to become an honest man, and Valjean adheres to his wishes, breaking his parole and beginning the wild goose chase that is somewhat essential to the film with Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).

Eight years later, Valjean has begun a new life as a factory owner and mayor of a small French town. One of the workers in his factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is forced to leave her job when it is revealed she sends her earnings to her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried). Unemployment pushes the poor single mother to sell everything from her hair to her teeth to even her body just to support her child.

Valjean encounters Fantine once more when he comes to her rescue during an encounter with an unruly client who claims that Fantine attacked him, and it is here that he discovers what has happened with the woman who was made to leave her job at his factory. Valjean brings the sickly prostitute to the hospital and vows to bring Cosette to her mother’s side. Unfortunately, Fantine passes on and Valjean makes it his duty to find the little girl and care for her like his own. He eventually finds the little girl in the home of the greedy Thenadiers (played to perfection by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter), wherein she works like a slave whilst Eponine, the daughter of the Thenadiers, lives as a pampered child.

Years pass and Valjean has become the father figure to the now young lady, Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried). During one day at the market Cosette catches the eye of a young student by the name of Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and they fall in love at first sight, much to the dismay of Marius’ longtime friend, Eponine (Broadway actress Samantha Barks).

It would please me to further elaborate on the story, but such would not be necessary, as a simple Google search would yield a more detailed account. Besides, to the chagrin of some it is not the story which plays the big role in this musical onscreen, it is the music. Not many of you may know this, but Les Mis is a sung-through musical, which pretty much means that everything from ‘Hello’ to ‘Can you help me’ is not said but sung. It takes familiarity with the musical for one to easily discern which parts are songs and which are simply dialogue, something which proves to be a challenge for those unfamiliar with Les Mis. Yet such is not the case for those familiar, as one need only listen clear and listen well to find the songs within the dialogue (hint: the musical accompaniment helps, well duh!).

Anyways, where can I begin with the acting? In a word, phenomenal. One can thank the casting director of this film for picking actors with a background in theatre (Both Jackman and Crowe worked in theatre, Hathaway is a trained soprano and also has extensive theatre experience), yet one can be certain that even they found putting a sung-through musical onscreen a challenge. But did they disappoint? I think not.

The same can be said for Redmayne and Seyfried, who portray Marius and Cosette so perfectly it seems as though they were made for their parts in the film. Newcomer Samantha Barks (who played Eponine in the 25th anniversary concert), makes a notable debut, singing her iconic ‘friendzone’ anthem ‘On My Own’ with almost the same power and emotion evocative of the original. Baron-Cohen and Bonham-Carter honestly deserve an Oscar nom each for the way they stole the show, bringing a much-needed splice of humor to the serious musical.

Indeed the actors played their parts to perfection in this movie. Jackman and Hathaway’s transformations proved to astound, as did their incredible singing work (which was not always technically perfect). I’m afraid the same cannot be said for Crowe. Baron-Cohen and Bonham-Carter deserve honorable mentions, and so does young Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen), whose haunting rendition of Cosette’s introductory song is one that is nothing short of beautiful.

Yet when has a film ever been perfect? Unfortunately, never.

Technical gaffes like questionable cinematography (when did cropping foreheads become a Hollywood thing?) and the overuse of the clear-unclear technique (the background is blurred, the subject not blurred… forgive me I am unaware of the term for such) will disturb some. The zoomed-in angle is also quite questionable and sometimes cringe-worthy (Valjean dying, Marius’ song after the revolution, a bit of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’).  Another thing I found problematic was the placing of ‘On My Own’. I remember crying my eyes out when I watched the Lea Salonga version, but I found it somewhat disappointing (forgive my standards) that I didn’t feel the same level of emotion when the song was rendered onscreen. I didn’t feel that with Anne’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, which pretty much leaked powerful anger and emotion that is challenging to evoke, and that disappointed me. I honestly blame it on the placing of the song and the lack of build-up in the scenes that would make one anticipate hearing ‘On My Own’. Another thing that some would consider ‘a gaffe’ is the fact that the director chose to stay true to the ‘sung-through’ aspect of the film. Some would probably praise Hooper for choosing to stay true to the musical, but not everyone would find such appealing, especially if the actors aren’t able to deliver technically-perfect singing 100% of the time. One could cite as an example the 2004 adaptation of another sung-through musical: The Phantom of the Opera as a possible ‘model’ for this film in terms of keeping dialogue and music in balance. (Unfortunately, the film does not follow Phantom’s style of dialogue-music, as evidenced the fact that Hooper chose to stay true to the musical).

Besides these minor gaffes, one can definitely say that the film lives up to the hype in more ways than one.There is definitely no doubt as to why the film is in contention for major trophies this awards season, and one need not be astute to predict that it will not take home at least one (or more) of the major awards for which it is nominated. 🙂

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