Sunday 13 January 2013

Les Miserables - Movie

Certificate 12A - On general release

Screenplay by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and William Nicholson
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Music by  Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Directed by Tom Hooper

Samntha Barks as Eponine
Evolving from 27 years of spectacular live performance, Tom Hooper has taken Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer’s Les Miserables and  transplanted  their masterpiece from stage to screen.
As an exercise in pushing the technical boundaries of some aspects of musical performance in cinema, the film is an unqualified success, but as an adaptation of one of the most celebrated works in the musical theatre canon, it fails to satisfy.
In the Prologue, an impressive blend of performance and CGI, we first encounter Jean Valjean the convict amongst a team of prisoners hauling in a massive shipwreck. The scenery is breathtakingly vast, but the vocal work is intimate and up close and thereby hangs the movie's flaw. Boublil and Schonbergs' compositions are grand and beautiful and do not lend themselves well to the repeated scrutiny of solo close up that is Hooper's signature. His directorial style worked well in The King's Speech, and also in television's EastEnders, where individual intimacy is crucial to the flowing of the story. Few canvases however are as vast as that of Victor Hugo's french classic and an enormous tale demands a similarly proportioned sense of perspective from the director and not just in the rumbustious ensemble numbers.

Hugh Jackman as Valjean is not only an actor of global presence but also possesses a fine pedigree in musical theatre. His performance of Valjean, that has already garnered a Golden Globe, is a noble depiction of a heroic journey. But where cinema has permitted the “zooming out” of the visual experience of this story,  the decision to “zoom in” on the vocal work robs these songs of the impressive majesty that the writers conceived some thirty odd years ago. In One Day More, arguably one of the finest “Act One Closers” ever written, the fragmented camerawork, with Jackman making Valjean’s contribution whilst fleeing in a stagecoach, robs a fantastic number of its impact. This is a song written for the stage, not the screen and Hooper’s adaptation has stripped the number of both magic and also of its gut-wrenching power. On stage this song is pivotal but on screen it is reduced to not much more than an inventory of different character's perspectives, adding little value to the tale.  All too often in this film, wonderful songs are reduced to simply rhyming dialogue with a muslcal background.
Jackman’s fellow antipodean Russell Crowe is Javert, Valjean’s nemesis, and the face of authority that pursues him throughout the story. Thankfully, Crowe is a masterful actor because his singing disappoints. His big number Stars, a song that has a beautiful poetic lilt to its construction is terribly mauled in his rendition, sung as it is from a high rooftop parapet looking out across a Parisian backdrop in a setting that suggests the singing gargoyles from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Much has been made of the use of live singing to camera, rather than the miming to a previously recorded soundtrack, that this movie espouses. Technically, this is impressive, and it is generally pleasing to see voice so well linked to face.  Perfect musical theatre (or musical cinema) however is a trinity  of voice, physical movement and music and whilst in earlier filmed musicals the pre-recorded vocals may have been disconnected from the on-screen acting, in Les Miserables, the performers' acting has been severed from the orchestral accompaniment that plays through almost the entire length of the film. This was of course not the intention when these songs were first written and whilst the score has by its nature required adaptation from stage to screen, the adaptive process has diluted much of the brilliance of Boublil and Schonberg's composition. It is of no small significance that on the website of Working Title, who co-produced the movie, writing credits are displayed but no credit at all is shown for the composers of the music.
Where scenes and structure do permit, then the ensemble performances in the film are glorious. Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thenardiers lead a wonderful Master Of The House, whilst the students'  Red & Black also stirs. Up close, Ann Hathaway’s I Dreamed a Dream and Come to Me reach out to touch the emotions alongside Eddie Redmayne’s Empty Chairs At Empty Tables that is equally a performance of powerful poignance. But when Samantha Barks performs On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain, the barrier of the screen between audience and actor descends and whilst her singing is exquisite, she fails to tug those same heartstrings that Boublil, Schonberg and Kretzmer so cunningly detected all those years ago in composing these tragic blockbusters.
It is impossible not to compare this film with the stage show. It is certainly as long as what one will find in the West End, albeit without the interval, although at least one advantage of the inevitable DVD release will be the ability to pause the movie after One Day More to take a comfort break. Stripped of its on-stage majesty, whilst the acting is magnificent throughout, the adaptation as a whole is a somewhat castrated version of the original work.   Some of the singing is wonderful and many of the visuals are magnificent. The credits list a vast team of talented and crafted folk who have laboured hard to deliver this film, which does deserve to be seen. Just don’t set your expectations too high.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review, but I think that what you have to take into consideration is the fact that it WAS a screen adaptation. If audience members have not seen the stage production, they would be ignorant of what you've pointed out. I think a review of the movie based solely on its own merits is required for those who've missed the majesty of it on the stage.

    I thought the camera work was brilliant. My particular favourite section was during Valjean's Lament in the church, where the camera panned in and showed half of his face in the light of the stained glass windows, and the other was barely visible in shadows. Light vs dark. That one shot embodied his struggle more than the rest of the number.

    I agree with your assessment of Crowe's performance to a certain degree. I don't think his acting was as masterful as you say. His Javert lacked the passion and anger and frustration that his pursuit of Valjean requires of the character. I had hope in the beginning, during his initial interactions with Jackman, but once he arrived in Paris, there was nothing in his performance to move me. Even a friend of mine, who hasn't seen the stage show, asked me "Why isn't he angrier or more frustrated at not being able to catch Valjean after all the years of pursuit?" I, sadly, had no answer.

    I loved both Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter as the Thenardiers, and Aaron Tveit's portrayal of Enjrolas was strong, and heartbreaking and at the end had me bawling.

    I agree with the rest of your review, save one thing. Samantha Barks' renditions of On My Own and A Little Fall of Rain tugged at my heartstrings in a very familiar way. These are my two favourite numbers of the whole show, and she did them justice. Of all the Eponine's I've seen (and there's been plenty), she was the most real.

    Thank you for sharing your opinion. :D