Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Les Misérables"

I have seen Les Misérables the musical more times than any other show—three times on Broadway, countless times performed by national theater companies, even once performed by a high school-age performing arts group. It's one of the musicals I know completely by heart—I can sing every part of every song, and actually have on a few long car rides. And if I could have the chance to be in any musical, Les Misérables would be at the top of the list.

From the moment I heard they'd be adapting the musical into a movie, I've been anticipating this. (I need something to completely eradicate the memory of the non-singing, Liam Neeson/Uma Thurman version from the late 1990s.) And once the casting was complete, and clips starting being released, I have been counting down to this day.

So after all that hype, did the movie live up to my expectations? Yes, and then some. While not a 100 percent line-for-line adaptation of the musical, I felt its translation into a movie gave it more depth, strengthening the power and emotion of the film. And nearly all of the performances were as good as I hoped they'd be.

Most people have either seen the musical or are familiar with the plot, so I'm going to skip the rundown of the story. But suffice it to say the plot has a little bit of everything—an ex-con trying to live the straight and narrow life but realizing the stigma is too much to bear; the dogged police inspector always on his trail; evil factory workers; women struggling to survive in a cruel world; whores, crooked thieves, and abandoned children; love at first sight; unrequited love; and standing up for what you believe in, all with the backdrop of the 1832 June Rebellion.

As Jean Valjean, the hero always trying to do right even when he doesn't, Hugh Jackman is magnetic, vulnerable, and in terrific voice. All of those performances on the Tony Awards were no fluke—he's a true performer. Sadly, Russell Crowe, as Valjean's foe, Inspector Javert, doesn't fare quite as well, at least vocally. He has the glower and sense of duty down quite well, but his musical delivery often seems somewhat rushed and it almost sounds as if he's trying to sing an octave lower than he speaks. (But perhaps I'm being a little unfair to Crowe; he does fine with Javert's song Stars, which is probably one of my most favorite in the entire show.)

Anne Hathaway, as the doomed Fantine, is as good as everyone says she is. She not only sings quite well, but the emotion she brings to her small but pivotal role is terrific and poignant. Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, Valjean's adopted daughter, shows her voice off even stronger than she did in Mamma Mia, while Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn), really surprised me with the strength of his performance as Marius, Cosette's love interest. (Quite often in productions of the musical, Marius is played by an exceptionally good looking actor with a weaker voice, but Redmayne sounds terrific.) And making her film debut as the defiant and lovelorn Eponine, English actress Samantha Barks (who played the role in the theater), is absolutely fantastic, and I think it's the fact that she's unknown that has stopped her from garnering praise equal to Hathaway's.

The supporting characters are equally fantastic. Broadway actor Aaron Tveit, as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellion, is vocally and emotionally powerful, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as the deviously cunning Thénardiers, provide the campy, comic relief you'd expect them to, without overacting or distracting.

As you might imagine, I was prepared to mouth the words from start to finish, so I noticed when lyrics were changed a bit or portions of songs were cut. But none of the alterations diminished the movie's power at all, although I felt the one new song added to the movie, Suddenly, seemed a bit out of place, even if it was written by the creators of the musical.

Be warned: adapting the musical into a movie makes the emotionally heavy parts even more so (I was a sobbing mess by the end), and some scenes are graphic and disturbing, particularly those around the barricade. And steer clear of the super-sized soda or bottle of water, as with previews, the movie runs just about three hours long.

It's rare when a movie you've waited so long and so hopefully for lives up to your expectations perfectly. But this movie did just that. And much like the musical, I'm ready to see it again. And again.

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