Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg go by without... without countering them, I'd like to say, but it's really more like I'm just going to be a pissy bitch.
Basically, I have it on good authority that the film is an embarrassment because it is sung-through, and that's kitschy; because it is extraordinarily overt about the things it wants you to feel, and that's tacky; because it has too many close-ups and too much hand-held camera, and that's- that's a fair criticism, actually, but we'll get there soon enough; because it is a contrived, over-the-top melodrama, and that's bullshit. Did I miss the memo where Victor Hugo's mammoth 1862 novel suddenly wasn't a unanimously praised masterpiece anymore? Because this film of the musical, whatever its flaws, is both a considerably better adaptation of the book than the stage version, and frankly, a better adaptation than any previous English-language movie version (it is the fourth, not counting a '70s TV adaptation), so if you want to start talking shit about the heaving melodrama in the story as presented here, you have to talk shit about Papa Hugo. And we do not talk shit about Papa Hugo at this blog.
At which point, I must admit to a few biases. Not just in favor of the bombastic, heaving musical that has been so broadly mocked by so many people (it lacks nuance, but Christ, it works), but in favor of a lot of other things going on here: musical movies, a curiously divisive genre, that happens to be my all-time favorite (if we're going to be stuck with sound in our movies - and, 80 years on, I take it that we are - might as well do something fun with it); melodramatic fiction of the 19th Century, my all-time favorite genre of literature; the specific social issues melodrama practiced by Victor Hugo in the deeply unsubtle source material, my all-time favorite novel; and deeply earnest stories about emotion that don't feel the need to check themselves in order to seem urbane or hip, something I grow ever more fond of as I become a more crotchety adult in a cynical age. Put it all together, and it's a sung-through melodrama about broadly-expressed emotions pitched right at your tear glands that has no shame about being what it is, and have I mentioned lately that opera is my all-time favorite artform, even more than movies?
In effect, I am, personally, this movie's ideal target audience. So that's the other reason I feel a bit bitchy about its reception, and also why you probably shouldn't take anything I say for the rest of this review at all seriously.
In all media, the nugget of the story is the same thing: after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her baby, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, making his long-awaited - by some of us - movie musical debut) is released in 1815, in southeastern France; the savage laws of the day mean, in effect, that as an ex-convict, Valjean will never be able to live as a free man. He is prepared to repay society in kind for its cruelty, when the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkonson, the musical's original Valjean) offers him a single act of kindness, thus setting Valjean on a path of spiritual redemption, though Law and Order, embodied by the fierce police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is neither willing to forgive nor forget, and hounds Valjean for the next 17 years. That's plot A. In plot B, in 1832, several student revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) stage a (failed, ultimately) rebellion against the monarchist order, erecting barricades in the streets of Paris and demanding a return to Republican ideals in a country that had, in the previous several years, become an unlivable hellhole for the poor. This historical event is known as the June Rebellion, not the French Revolution, but I understand why some people have gotten confused on that point. After all, the movie only opens with a title card identifying the Revolution as an event in the past, and introduces the 1832 sequence with a title cared saying "Nine years later: 1832". It's not like it has a moment where the student revolutionaries sing, "Though this is a revolution / It's not, you know, the Revolution / That happened forty-three years ago."
The twin nuggets, then: one man, hounded by a cold system that, as Anatole France would write in 1894, "in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread"; and group of people paying with their lives in an attempt to change that system for the better. It is not a story of subtle propaganda: the socially active novelists of the mid-19th Century were more about howls of rage and less about cunning rhetoric. There's a lot more to the novel than that, and a lot more not just to this movie but to every other adaptation; still, even as crammed full and fast-paced as it is, the 157-minute musical film (containing no fewer than 11 "main" characters, 12 if we count Cosette and Young Cosette separately) represents a severely redacted version of Hugo's original, although, it must be pointed out, a fuller version than the stage musical. In fact, one of the most surprising things to me about this adaptation is that it fixes things with the musical's story that I hadn't even realised were problems: re-ordering a couple of songs so they made more emotional sense (though I am not sure that one of the more prominent shifts, moving the "I am unloved" lament "On My Own" earlier, achieves anything), and adding a very important scene for Javert to make his motivations considerable more sensible than onstage.
Still, that is one of the problems with this particular movie: it is rushed, and cramped, especially in the opening hour. A whole lot of material is thrown at the viewer in hardly any time, and not all of it makes perfect sense.
And there are problems to go around, too: as we've all heard, Tom Hooper brings back the wide-angle close-ups that infuriated so many people with The King's Speech in 2010, and this time he adds hand-held camera the mix. I can understand why some people are so upset with the former, though I personally think it works extremely well (though I thought it worked well in 2010, too, so I'm apparently just an idiot): the narrative scope and music are grand and epic, but the resolute focus on human faces - as I have said before, and will doubtlessly say again, the most cinematic object in all cinema - brings it back down to the people living and suffering, making a musical that paints in giant broad strokes intimate again. Anyway, it's not fucking medium shots, at least. You have to give it that much credit.
The hand-held camera, that sucks. I won't pretend otherwise. There are a few shots, in the run-up to the barricades, where the urgent stutter of hand-held works very well; but there are so many more shots where it plays exactly as it always plays, like a crappy and unpersuasive attempt at realism, where it's not required twice over: first, because Les Misérables is a costume drama, and those are usually better as they are less real, and second, because Les Misérables is a musical, the most un-realistic of all genres. There are, of a certainty, naturalistic and realistically-grounded musicals, but they aren't realistic.
Other problems: for some reason, the editing in the early going is a bit jarring: one cut in the prologue is a complete, laughable disaster, crossing the 180 line with cheery abandon; and the first big musical number, as compared to recitative, chops along in a rhythm that has nothing to do with the melody. But as it goes on, it becomes more ordered - the big act-break song, if the film had an act break, is a perfectly-edited montage spanning several characters in several locations, making me angry all over again that Tim Burton got so up his own ass with "plausibility" in making Sweeney Todd and cutting all the montage moments out of that film.
Russel Crowe is an uninteresting failure, trying too hard to sing convincingly and forgetting, in the process, to act; he's the worst part of the cast, but not the only weak link. Amanda Seyfried, playing the show's least-interesting part, Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette, has a thiny, reedy voice (but she's tossed offscreen the second that the barricade scenes start), and Eddie Redmayne as her lover, student revolutionary Marius, sings their duets in a nasal, Kermit-the-Frog voice - though he is quite good when they are separated, and his "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is one of the three absolute highlights of the picture. The film's worst crime as an adaptation is that the show's signature song, "Bring Him Home", is a fucking disaster: the camera reels around drunkenly, and Jackman, for the one time in the movie, seems completely unaware of how to sing: he belts a song that is meant to be a heartbreaking prayer, rending the main line as "Buh-ring! him hoewum" in a way that made me want to cry in all the wrong ways.
But the problems, I find, are mostly small, detail-based problems, and all iterations of Les Misérables are about the broad sweep, not the small details. And the broad sweep is a-okay: Anne Hathwaway's "I'mma make you cry now" sobbing during "I Dreamed a Dream", or the glorious populist roar of the barricade sequences (certainly the most robust and heaving part of the musical to begin with, for the whole thing is basically a revolutionary call to arms pitched at the cheap seats, and this was true of the high-priced show in 1985 as much as it was of the bestselling novel in 1862, though I think the middle-class audience for the show has mistaken the fact that this is all set in 1830s France a sign that it doesn't have political application for the modern day), or West End Les Miz vet Samantha Barks giving the film's best performance as tortured gamine Eponine - ironically, she's the best precisely because she has figured out better than anyone else how to modulate her performance down to movie screen size without lapsing into histrionic (as Hathaway does, just once), or burying the musical beneath too much movie-camera intimate whispering (as Jackman does, frequently).
Basically, the people complaining that the movie is an emotional harangue, that it shakes you down and screams at you to feel things, have mistaken a feature for a bug; yes that is what Les Misérables is doing, because that is what musical drama, as a class, is best at doing. It stages emotion rather than staging the events that generate emotion; it is unsubtle, but magnificently so. More importantly, Les Misérables does it really goddamn well: two and a half hours of nearly constant singing (there is, contrary to the reports, a solid two-dozen lines of spoken dialogue; two-dozen too many if you ask me, but nobody did. Anyway, anyone complaining about sung-through musicals is just being daft: if we had three or four a year, that would be a concern and a valid complaint, but once a decade or less? I think Western Civilization can survive one sung-through movie musical, especially one that isn't even technically sung-through), music that heaves vigorously and with just enough delicacy and nuance in the use of leitmotif that it doesn't make you feel stupid just for listening to it - a megamusical it is, Andrew Lloyd Webber it's not - and actors who fling themselves, choking and weeping and raging into the singing of it; by the way, the much-ballyhooed "live singing on set" works flawlessly, from where I'm standing, giving the actors leave to act through singing as well as it's ever been done in a movie, and resulting in one of the absolute cleanest, most involving soundscapes in any movie musical ever - the last time this kind of thing was done regularly, in the '30s, the technology of sound design being at a level of primitivism that really can't be defended on legitimate artistic grounds.
In short, everything the haters say is exactly right: it's wearying, emotionally bossy, it paints its themes in primary colors, and it would rather bowl you over than tease you and let you draw things out for yourself. Not one of those things is untrue. It's just that, as far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with any of it. From here, Les Misérables looks like, incontestably, the best film musical since 2001, and certainly in the top rank of film musicals made in the last half-century.
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