Thursday, January 17, 2013

Film review: Les Miserables

I am not saying this just to be different or to go against the tide of popular opinion but I thought Anne Hathaway's Fantine was one dimensional, and I'm not sure it was her fault.

Of course, you'd argue: she had lost her job and she had a daughter to raise—she was meant to be desperate through and through—but the film version of Les Miserables decided to switch the order of I Dreamed a Dream, where she muses about her past, and Lovely Ladies, where she transitions from virtuous girl to a destitute. And so Anne approached I Dreamed differently from the musical: wherein Fantine on stage had the benefit of showing that transition (ergo, range) and giving us a glimpse of that young girl whose sin was that she fell in love with the wrong man before "it all went wrong," Anne had little choice but to commit to a Fantine who's no longer human but a rag doll from early on.

I was hoping that even though her Fantine had been drawn of hope in Lovely Ladies, Anne would still give a us a flicker of that happy girl who enjoyed and made the most of her youth in I Dreamed ("And I was young and afraid... no song unsang, no wine untasted"), but alas, she attacks the song with such pasan ko ang daigdig complex. The interpretation was flat; she made absolutely no room for nostalgia in the first half of the song—I suppose given the change in sequence, there was danger of turning Fantine into a bi-polar, but then, under those circumstances, who wouldn't snap?

To be fair, Les Miserables has to be judged on how it translated the material from stage to film, hence I won't touch on the dodgy and sometimes ambiguous plot. The novel by Victor Hugo was 531,000 words and lyrics can only do so much—one depends on the actors to fill the gap: the audience must feel that which cannot be expressed in words. Unfortunately, the songs, interpreted by actors, lacked the gravitas that I had gotten used to hearing from the musical's soundtrack and videos.

At first, I thought it may be impossible—the film version recorded the songs live, so the result is inevitably raw and visceral. (I think that may partly explain the mostly tight shots; there was certainly a disconnect when the camera soars to shoot panoramic and sweeping views and the voice could not compete with such majesty.) But then I was pleasantly surprised to see Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, in the role of Bishop Myriel, who savors each lyric by rounding his lips—I can almost visualize the words titillated by them pillows—and still, the words surrendered to the air and how they resonated so deep and beautiful: gravitas was possible. (Unfortunately, I'm hard pressed to give the same praises to another stage alum, Samantha Barks as Eponine.)

Hugh Jackman is a fairly excellent singer, hence, I did not understand why some of his songs were octaves lower than the original. The effect for me was that his interpretation of Valjean's Soliloquy (What Have I Done?) was contemplative and tender—which, don't get me wrong, is a gallant approach and authentic too—but I guess my personal preference was someone who spewed shame and self-reproach.

But oh my god, what did Russell Crowe do to Stars? :-( In the musical, Stars, on its own, was enough to provide range and depth to Javert's character: he is puritanical in his morals and unremitting in his piety. It was such a shame given that the film was stunning in its visual direction for Javert: he speaks from the pulpit—high atop the parapet of what I assume to be the Notre Dame cathedral, such as in Stars—addressing those beneath his feet. (A recurring theme for Javert, from the opening scene, to Stars, to his final scene.)

Unfortunately, Stars, such a powerful and unrelenting song, was reduced to a whimper under Russell.

Another disappointment was On My Own; the film and Samantha Barks practically relied on the downpour to convey Eponine's emotion (too literal at that). Though I did like Samantha, whenever she was in a trio with Marius and Cosette.

Among the lead actors, there is one who I thought was perfect in both acting and singing and it is Eddie Redmayne as Marius. Marius in the musical—at least as far as the anniversary concerts are concerned—is almost a parody of that typical teenybopper in love, but in the film, Eddie is a man. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is usually a song I'd fast-forward on my cassette tape, but with his rendition, there's melancholy, guilt, and pain. His nuanced interpretation displayed a range of emotions which I thought Anne didn't deliver in I Dreamed. I also liked how giddy he was in A Heart Full of Love; it was one of the few, welcome high points (along with Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen's Thenardiers) in a film burdened with such pallor and despair.

Overall, it was okay but I wasn't exactly blown away. There were moments I was on the edge of the seat—I was riveted sure, but it was mostly because I was rooting for the actors to hit those notes and overwhelm me with emotion, but alas, by the end of the film, my eyes were still dry.

Rating: 7/10

7 * :

gary said...

'...but it was mostly because I was rooting for the actors to hit those notes and overwhelm me with emotion, but alas, by the end of the film, my eyes were still dry.'

that's the way to review a film. you should be blown away. anything less than that is less than 6 stars, les miz or not. If 'lesser' films can do it there's no reason this can not.

Alex said...

Great review! Totally agree that it was good but a bit of a letdown. I wanted the emotional connection, but it just seemed so lacking and pretentious. Agreed that Eddie Redmayne was the best part. I thought Aaron Tveit and Daniel Huttlestone were good too!

Carlo said...

Oh, how can I forget about Russell Crowe?

Yeah, he sucked.

But to be fair: the role of Javert is a role that is very high for him. His speaking voice has got to be at least an octave LOWER. While it is true that Javert has already been transposed for him, it was a bit clear that Crowe was insecure about his vocal technique. He barely got through the role. I think the casting people should have persuaded him to withdraw.

Jonathan Price and Goeffrey Rush would have made great Javerts.

Anonymous said...

I love samantha .. and she did a great job .. I have felt the emotions that I wanna feel evrytime I hear the song on my own :)) nice review though

Jason D. said...

Thank you for granting my request to post your review here. If there's anyone whose Les Miz review I wholeheartedly trust and respect, it's yours since you're the one who introduced me to the material more than a decade ago and you're well versed on both the novel and musical.

I liked that you brought up Amanda Seyfried; I've read quite a number of tweets dissing her voice and onscreen presence, but I thought she was a nightingale and another bright spot in the film. Regarding Nick Jonas, he ruined the 25th anniversary concert for me.

I couldn't agree more with your choices for Javert!

Jason D. said...

Thanks Alex!

I'm shocked to learn--just recently--that Eddie didn't earn an acting nomination from either Golden Globes or the Academy Awards. He really was the film's standout for me.

Carlo said...

You're most welcome!

I do apologize about the typos.

It is only right to be skeptical about the mixing of voices in the recording studio. The actors all sang with bad acoustics. (Just typing the previous sentence made me realize that it is possibly one of the many reasons why Hathaway was flat in some parts.) The camera and sound crew did everything they can to capture the sounds of their voices and lessen the unnecessary sounds (walking, creaking, movement, etc.). Some voices, no matter how beautiful it is will sound ugly (either too harsh or too dull) for modern technology. I think this should be addressed because of the nature of the human singing voice in relation to acoustics.

Take for example Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks. "Hugh Jackman was the Ethel Merman of the French Revolution," one person commented. It's rather cruel. But that way of singing is the best way for the theater and for this role. The edginess on Samatha Barks' voice, for the most part, was lost. Of course, her performance in the 25th Anniversary suited her personality, as well as the character of Eponine, a lot better.

I didn't think Amanda Seyfried needed to act as Cossette. It seemed too easy for her. But then Cossette did have a rather easy life compared to the rest of the cast.

I think Nick Jonas was a disappointment in the 25th Anniversary Concert. But then maybe after a few more years, his voice would have settled and he could have gone to a better teacher, trained exclusively for that role, he might have been perfect for Marius this time. But then he might not have a good chemistry on screen with his partners. It's also possible that he would be devoured on screen by Samantha Barks.

Some classical musicians do not like the movie at all because they think that the music is rather hammy. Again, it's a matter of taste, which can always be argued. I do, however, agree with this review to be familiar with another novel that was inspired by another Victor Hugo novel, set to music by the Italian master of opera, Giuseppe Verdi. It's called Rigoletto.

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