Saturday, January 5, 2013

Movie Review: Les Miserables 2012

Undoubtedly one of the best movies in 2012 is the musical drama, Les Miserables which is based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same title. First published in 1862, the novel is a story about the redemption of a man, Jean Valjean, convicted for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving family. Valjean is sentenced to five years of hard labour for the theft and another fourteen years for attempting to escape.

In this musical adaptation of the novel, the story begins in the year of 1815 when Valjean has been released from prison but must carry with him at all times, papers identifying himself as an ex-convict. Bitter and railing against God, Valjean tries to find work only to be repeatedly turned away. Arriving in the village of Digne, hungry and exhausted, Valjean is taken in by Bishop Myriel who invites him to supper and offers him a clean bed. During the night, Valjean steals the good bishop's silverware and leaves, only to be caught by the police. When they tell the bishop that Valjean has robbed him of his silverware, Bishop Myriel tells the police that in fact, he gave Valjean the silver as a gift. After the police leave, Myriel tells Valjean that he has been given a second chance and to become an honest man.

Valjean manages to reinvent himself as Monsieur Madelaine, a wealthy factory owner who is also Mayor of the small village where he lives. In his factory he employs Fantine, who is essentially a single mother working to pay for the care of her daughter, Cosette. Cosette lives with Madame and Monsieur Thenardier who use her as a slave. When gossip about Fantine being single with a child surfaces, she is thrown out of Monseiur Madelaine's factory by his foreman without his knowledge.

At this point Inspector Jalvert, a fanatical and rigid police inspector comes to Montreuil sur Mer. Jalvert was a guard when Valjean served his time and he remembers the ex-convict for his amazing strength. Valjean has simply vanished and Jalvert has not been able to find any trace of him for the past six years. At first he thinks he recognizes Madelaine as Valjean, but quickly apologizes when Madelaine appears upset. However, when a worker named Fauchelevant becomes trapped under the wheels of a heavy cart and Madelaine frees him, Jalvert is certain that Monsieur Madelaine is in fact, the missing Valjean.

Meanwhile, Fantine, who is without any means to support herself or her child, turns to prostitution. When she assaults a man who has come to use a prostitute, Jalvert tries to arrest her but is prevented from doing so by Monseiur Madelaine. Upon learning how she came to work on the streets, Madelaine takes her to the nuns to be cared for and promises to find her daughter Cosette and take care of her.

At this point Jalvert confronts Valjean and tells him that he has reported his whereabouts and identity to the police but that he realizes that he must be in error because the authorities have arrested a man whom they claim is the real Jean Valjean. Monsieur Madelaine decides he cannot allow an innocent man to suffer and he travels to the trial to reveal that he is the real Jean Valjean.

Fantine dies without seeing her daughter Cosette, and Jalvert confronts Valjean in the hospital. Valjean asks Jalvert to give him three days to locate Cosette and jumps out of window into the water, escaping. Days later he manages to locate Cosette while she is in the woods getting water. Valjean takes Cosette from the Thenardiers and they move to Paris and go into hiding. They are happy for some time until one day Jalvert discovers their hiding place. With the help of Fauchelevant a gardener at the convent of Petit-Picpus, they flee into hiding at the convent. Cosette grows up in the safety of the convent.

Eight years later, revolution is now brewing in Paris. French students have organized to begin another revolution and one of the students involved in Marius Pontmercy, who lives with his wealthy grandfather, Monsieur Gillenormand. One day while walking in Paris, Marius sees Cosette, and is instantly infatuated with her. When she vanishes from sight after an altercation with the Thenardier's who are now destitute and living in Paris, Marius asks his friend, Eponine, who loves him, to find out where Cosette lives.

Cosette and Marius meet at the entrance to her home at Rue Plumet but when Jalvert also discovers where they are living, Valjean decides that he and Cosette must flee to Britain. Cosette manages to get a note to Marius, who is now in the middle of planning to set up barricades throughout Paris as the launch to the revolution.

As the revolt begins, Marius and the leader of the revolt, Enjolras manage at first to keep the soldiers at bay. Jalvert has infiltrated the revolution but when he returns from a trip outside the barricades, Gavroche tells the revolutionaries that he is really a soldier. Jalvert is taken aside to be executed but Valjean, who has learned of Cosette's love for Marius and has come to take him with them to England, tells Enjolras he will deal with him. Instead, Valjean refuses to murder Jalvert, sets him free, and tells him that he no longer hates him. In reply, Jalvert says he will continue to hunt down Valjean to the very end and bring him to justice saying, once a thief, always a thief.

When the barricades are rushed in one final attack, Marius is seriously wounded. Valjean, rescues him, carrying him through the sewers of Paris, to his grandfather's home where he is tended. Meanwhile Jalvert cannot abide the fact that he is in debt to a thief and he commits suicide. As Marius heals, Valjean realizes that he cannot hold onto Cosette forever. He gives his blessing for their marriage. Valjean retreats to the convent where he eventually dies. Cosette and Marius visit him just before his death and Fantine returns as a spirit to take him to heaven.

Les Miserables ends with a rousing version of "Do you hear the people sing?" which includes all the cast, and provides a spectacular finale to the movie.

Unlike the musicals produced by Rogers and Hammerstein in the 1950's and '60's, in which the music we hear during the film is polished vocals recorded in a studio prior to filming, the actors in Les Miserables sing on camera. Instead of miming their singing during filming, in Les Miserables, the actors gave live performances on camera while using an ear piece which allowed them to hear a piano played offstage. This allowed the cast to concentrate on their acting, capturing the emotions of the moment in the vocal performance and works very well, even though not all of the actors in the film are strong vocalists. Another way in which this musical is different from say The Sound of Music or Oklahoma is that the film is sung through with very little added dialogue.

There are many excellent vocal performances by broadway veteran, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, by Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, Eddie Redmayne as Marius, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche.

Jackman brilliantly transitions from the gaunt, angry ex-convict to the sacrificial, heroic Monsieur Madelaine. Anne Hathaway's performance of I dreamed a dream is unforgettable - deeply moving, easily conveying the profoundly tragic situation of Fantine. It is worthy of an Oscar.

Redmayne with his rich vocals was absolutely superb as Marius, a revolutionary in love with Cosette.

Russell Crowe is physically well cast as Jalvert, with his imposing physique, but his vocal performance is only adequate. His singing simply lacks the power one might expect from the character of Jalvert. Daniel Huttlestone is wonderful as Gavroche, his singing fresh and his performance, endearing. Both Helen Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen come within a hairs breadth of stealing the show with their comedic portrayal of the thieving, conniving Thenardiers. They provide the much needed comic relief in the movie especially with their hilariously ribald rendition of "Master of the House". And who knew Sasha Baron Cohen could sing?!

In the video below, the actors discuss the merits of singing live on camera for Les Miserables.

One aspect I especially enjoyed about this move was the incredible camera shots of the moon in the night scenes. When Valjean is released and is walking through the countryside at night, the moon glowing down upon him serves to emphasize his isolation and hopelessness. When Jalvert stands on the ramparts and sings "Stars" under the glow of a brilliant moon we sense his intensity and determination.

But one thing I didn't enjoy was the extreme close-ups of some of the characters while they were singing. A good example is when Eddie Redmayne sings "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" - a poignant ballad expressing his longing for Cosette, but somewhat marred by the close camera.

This musical offers several nods to the Broadway version of Les Miserables. The death of Enjolras in this version is similar to that in the play; he is shot and falls backwards out the window hanging upside down. The barricades constructed by the revolutionaries are also almost identical to those in the stage production.

One enjoyable and rather humorous scene was that of all types of furniture being thrown out of windows as the students call for help in constructing the barricades.

Directed by Tom Hooper, Les Miserables was filmed on location in France and England and also at Pinewood Studios. Overall, Les Miserables is a wonderful production that effectively tells the story and conveys the some of the many themes of the novel including those of forgiveness, redemption, sacrificial love, justice, and mercy. Go see it.

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