Sunday, April 28, 2013

Short Take: Les Misérables

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Les Misérables, the screen adaptation of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic 1862 novel, is a whirlwind treatment of the material. That is not a compliment. Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, the reformed convict who, rather than see an innocent man condemned in his place, gives up almost everything for the life of a fugitive. The commitment he will not abandon is the upbringing of Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, and Amanda Seyfried as a young woman). It's a promise he made to her mother (Anne Hathaway) on the woman’s deathbed. His initial challenge is to stay out of the clutches of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a dogged lawman who fervently believes in the law but has no understanding of justice. Years later, a greater challenge comes: accepting Cosette’s love for the young bourgeois revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and allowing her to become the fellow’s wife. Everything comes to a head during France’s 1832 June Rebellion. Director Tom Hooper bit off a lot more than he could chew. He had three challenges: mounting the large-scale production, bringing off the musical set pieces, and effectively dramatizing the sprawling story. He succeeds almost completely at the first, and intermittently at the second. With the third, he fails: the audience is rushed from plot point to plot point, and the narrative cannot build momentum. The drama only comes to life with a few of the musical numbers. The best of these are “I Dreamed a Dream,” heartbreakingly performed by Anne Hathaway, and Eddie Redmayne’s rendition of “Empty Tables and Empty Chairs,” his character’s reflections on the rebellion and lost friends. “On My Own,” performed by Samantha Barks, also deserves mention. Hugh Jackman is perhaps the finest musical-theater actor in the world today, and he is quite compelling as Valjean, but his singing is of mixed quality. He’s a baritone being required to sing tenor, and while one can see his considerable skill, one can also see the strain. Russell Crowe would probably be a fine Javert in a non-musical production, but he’s hopeless here: his flat crooning completely locks one out of the character. The work of the film’s artisans, including cinematographer Danny Cohen, costumer Paco Delgado, and production designers Eve Stewart and Anna Lynch-Robinson, is first-rate. The screenplay is credited to William Nicholson, adapted from Hugo’s novel and Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage play. The English-language lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer.

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