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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Les Miserables

Hey, something almost new, Here it is, my Les Mierabablebles review!

Straight off the bat, I have to admit that I have never seen the stage play of Les Miserables, nor read Victor Hugo's novel, nor seen any of the other films based on it. As such, I can't compare this most recent incarnation of the hit musical against anything other than itself but, as a total newcomer, it has to be said that, bar a few flaws, I was pretty much blown away by the film.

The story, for those who aren't in the know, follows the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he goes from being a slave serving out his 19 year sentence for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's sickly child to his reinvention as a wealthy entrepreneur. It's not long, however, before this transformation comes crashing down as a police officer recognizes him as the man who defaulted on his parole years ago and sets off on a tireless vendetta to bring him down. Along the way, Valjean adopts the child of a prostitute who was briefly in his employ, which in and of itself leads to his involvement in an abortive second French Revolution (the film begins 15 years after the French Revolution ended).

It's not a particularly convoluted plot but its freewheeling, digression-heavy structure doesn't entirely work in this format and is one of the few truly notable flaws that prevents the film from becoming the masterpiece that it so obviously wants to be. That said, though the film does try one's patience on occasion - its rambling plotline does play out over nearly 160 minutes - it's still one of the most thematically rich and emotionally rewarding films to come out in quite some time.

Take for example, the film's many, many central characters. Each and every one are complex, fully rounded creations that all, in their own way, are forced to confront a world that is never quite what they expected it to be. There's a reason why I Dreamed a Dream is the film's central and best-known song, after all - but more on that in a bit. While, for example, Jean Valjean is confronted by the realization that, for all his year's in captivity, there is more to him than the down-trodden victim he had become, Javert (Russell Crowe), the policeman who spends decades trying to bring Valjean down for defaulting on his parole is forced to question his strict, justice-driven world view in the face of Valjean's mercy and honour.  

Musicals and operas (Les Mis is actually closer to the latter in structure, though closer to the former in its musical stylings), whether you like them or not, are usually seen as being slight, fluffy fair but, though that generalization doesn't really hold up if you think about it for more than a minute or two, Les Miserables bucks those cliches at every turn. It is, for a start, very, very dark and features more death, despair and grime than even the most ruthless horror films and, though there are certainly uplifting moments, the story it has to tell is heartbreakingly sad.

It's also a film with real depth, with some fairly profound insights into the human condition (I Dreamed a Dream again) and something to say about spirituality, class warfare, redemption, the challenging of established beliefs, love, honour, mercy, responsibility, parental sacrifices and, of course, dodgy inn-keepers.    It also packs a poignant emotional punch at every turn (especially I Dreamed a - okay, okay, I'll get to it soon), but keeps things varied with the inclusion of those genuinely funny, dodgy inn keepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).

And, oh yes, the music is pretty damn great throughout - even if you aren't a particularly huge fan of showtunes.

All of this, presumably, is in the original stage play and its originating novel, but Les Mis also works spectacularly as a great piece of cinema. There's a real sweep to Tom Hooper's direction that makes the film instantly and intently cinematic in a way that so few stage-to-film adaptations are, but the real thing that sets the film apart from the stage production is that Hooper uses close-ups to convey the characters' emotions in ways that simply can't be replicated on stage. He has also surrounded himself with a cadre of top-notch actors, most of whom can really sing and has, in Hugh Jackman, a genuinely powerful lead performance on which to hang everything else.

And then, there is Anne Hathaway. Or, as it should be spelled in this case, ANNE MUTHABEAPIN' HATHAWAY!!

I told you I would get to this eventually...

Look, there's just no getting past it: however good Les Mis is in general - and it is very, very good - everything else about the film pales in comparison to Anne Hathaway's jaw-dropping performance. She's not on screen for long (maybe 15 minutes at most) but she makes the best of it, giving a heartfelt performance from beginning to end. There is, however, a certain four minute stretch where not only does she outdo herself and everything else in the film, but she ensures that these four minutes will go down as four of the most powerful minutes in all of modern cinema -  and I say this without even the slightest hint of hyperbole.

I am, as you may have guessed, talking about her "performance" of I Dreamed A Dream - though "performance" doesn't quite capture what she does here. Like many people, I was most familiar with I Dreamed A Dream from Susan Boyle's performance on Britain's Got Talent. No offense to Ms. Boyle, who is clearly a great singer and whose audition remains one of reality TV's few truly wonderful moments, but her performance of the song is merely beautiful; Anne Hathaway's "performance" is heartrendingly transcendental in a way that only the greatest of great art truly is.  

Again, part of the power in this scene is that Hooper shoots this entire scene in close-up, live and, as near as I can tell, in one long take, but Hathaway not only makes full use of a frankly rather challenging set-up but she uses it to wring out every last inch of emotion and meaning from what I now recognize to be one of the profoundly sad songs ever written. Yes, she has a lovely voice and she and her make up team do make her almost unrecognizable as a woman truly broken by the world, but there's so much more going on here. The four minutes of I Dreamed A Dream are perfect cinema and perfect music, working together to form a few short minutes of pure, heartbreaking, cathartic, mesmerizing and, yes, utterly transcendent power that will far outlive even the very fine film of which it is part.

Here, incidentally, is a video of the audio from this scene, if you want a better understanding of just why it deserves every last bit of praise that I have shamelessly, perhaps even embarassingly effusively heaped upon it. Obviously, it loses half it's impact without the video and it should really only be listened to after seeing the film but, really, I just couldn't not post it.

And, oh yeah, the rest of the film is pretty damn good too.

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