3 / 5
Using modern, digital filmmaking techniques to adapt the musical version of Les Miserables to film is a bit like using blog posts to write Gone With the Wind. You can do it, it just won't see the same.
The truncated Les Miserables that became a stage sensation in the late 1980s whittles Victor Hugo's 900-page epic into about three hours, narrowing its focus to the dogged determination of Inspector Javert to track down Jean Valjean, the love story between Marius and Valjean's daughter Cosette, and the little matter of the French Revolution.
With frantic editing and a relentless -- almost exhausting -- reliance on close-ups, director Tom Hooper gets the first two pretty much right, it's the French Revolution part that suffers, which is quite a thing to suffer in a story about, you know, the French Revolution. The politics are all pretty murky, and Les Miserables misses a bet by not drawing some correlation to the failed Occupy movement that almost swept the globe. Still, the stage musical had vocal theatrics on its mind more than historical education, and on that level, Les Miserables the film does about as well as Les Miserables the show. But anyone who hasn't already seen the musical may have a bit of a hard time figuring out what all the fuss was about, and in part that's due to the critical decision by the director to have his actors sing live on set rather than lip sync to pre-recorded tracks the way musicals have been doing for 80 years or so.
The lead actors are all reasonably well-known names, so the question most on peoples' minds will be simple: Can they sing? Why, yes, with one exception, they can -- and quite well. Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried and the less-known Eddie Redmayne are all genuinely sensational; Hugh Jackman seems constrained, particularly at the beginning, but ably blends nice vocals and solid acting. Only Russell Crowe feels miscast -- he doesn't have as much as bad voice as one with a narrow range, and his big number, "Stars," falls curiously flat for being a showstopper.
That's a pretty good scorecard, though, and the supporting actors are even better, with Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit real standouts. Oddly, Sacha Baron Cohen begins his role with a thick cockney accent and mysteriously switches to French after a couple of scenes.
But then comes the pesky matter of the live singing, and on this count the actors aren't at all to blame. Rather, it's the frankly bizarre decision to shoot virtually every number in a tight close up, and the net effect is that the audience watches an epic-free epic. There's no sense of scale or scope, no sense of movement or tempo that accompanies the music, none of what makes movie musicals such a specific and often unsuccessful genre: They require space to breathe, they demand the audience see a full performance.
Les Miserables, on the other hand, is like going to see the Broadway musical and renting old-style opera glasses -- as soon as a character launches into song, bam!, everything else falls away and we watch a single character sing about the importance of the French Revolution ... but we don't see it.
There are some exceptions, there are moments when Les Miserables goes soaring into the rafters both aurally and visually, and those are the moments that unfortunately serve to call out what's missing at so many other critical moments.
Les Miserables is a noble effort. It's a good, adequate movie, far superior to such wretched musical efforts in recent years as The Phantom of the Opera and the so-bad-I-stopped-watching-halfway-through Rock of Ages.
Les Miserables was clearly made by people who wanted to do the stage show justice, but in that, they've left us holding a bit of a mixed bag. It's an almost-flawlessly sung and acted version of a story that tells of heated passion and relentless determination to make life better. The singing they got, the passion and determination is what they needed to work on.
It's a perfect example of a movie that could have benefitted from using the styles and techniques that may be old, but they work. We needed a cinematic Les Miserables for all ages, not just the digital one.
Viewed 12/25/12 - Reading Grossmont