06 January 2013

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

I figure this snippet is long enough to qualify as a full review, so into the blog proper it goes! Hurrah!

Based on a big, bombastic, popular, and really, really long-running musical, which in turn is based on a historical novel from Victor Hugo set in the miserable time of early-19th century France, this is a movie where nothing is small and everything is meant to feel like a cannonball to the stomach in terms of how it tries to blast feelings out of you. For a brief moment early on, this approach actually works like a charm, and we filmgoers can get a welcome taste of the dramatic impact of the play. Anne Hathaway is absolutely spellbinding as Fantine, a downtrodden woman trying to save up for her young child's future (the father is, of course, out of the picture) driven to prostitution and even selling her hair and teeth. The most powerful moment in the movie is her raw and passionate rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Unfortunately, this leaves about two, largely Hathaway-less hours left before the movie grinds exhaustingly to its conclusion.

This is truly monochromatic, disjointed, underdeveloped, overwrought stuff, shot by director Tom Hooper & co., for some reason, at extreme close-ups or at 45-degree angles that I guess is meant to heighten the gritty realism and intimacy of it all but instead makes everything just feel intrusive or look like a drunken blur. It's the kind of movie where consistency and plot development fall by the wayside in favour of big, dramatic, emotional moments that, if you actually take a moment to look at them, don't often make a lot of sense or amount to more than a hill of beans. What is the ultimate basis of the rebellion that dominates the second half of the movie? Vague teenage angst? None of that revolutionary spirit rang true in this film version. Why is Javert so singularly focused on capturing Jean Valjean? Doesn't he have other criminals to tend to? Why is Valjean so self-flagellating? The man is a (one-dimensional) saint; don't be so hard on yourself! Why are the broad comic stylings of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as crooked inkeepers, so arbitrarily sprinkled in with the action? They seem to hail from a different movie altogether. Why does everyone seem to die not based on any sort of actual disease or natural cause but mainly when the storytellers feel like we are ready again for a big cry?  It's just pure, unbridled (and largely ineffective) manipulation.

Honestly, the music isn't even very good, aside from the aforementioned "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Master of the House," which is kind of fun and bouncy--although Hooper ruins even that number with his antic framing techniques. This is a problem, indeed, with the original stage production, although the stage is better suited for this enterprise's endless crescendoes."The ABC Café—Red and Black" falls particularly flat; it's more a blunt object than a song, with little musical variety or nuance to it, just pointed stabs of "red!!!" and "black!!!" that quickly grow tiresome.

On the plus side, Hugh Jackman, always a generous, winning actor, throws himself into the role of Jean Valjean with admirable aplomb--it's a solid effort. The attractive Samantha Barks as Eponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius sing beautifully and have some nice moments. Russell Crowe, however, just looks pained and uncomfortable as Javert; it was actually excruciating to watch this normally talented man struggle through this Broadway-style emoting.

Aside from a few poignant moments dominated by the showstopping Hathaway, Hooper's Les Misérables is a glossy, in-your-face, aggresively ingratiating endeavour that is never nearly as powerful as it wants to be. This is a movie that tries way too hard to hit those high notes (both musically and emotionally) without developing its characters or telling its story clearly enough to actually earn the impact it's so eagerly gunning for. At two-and-a-half long hours of vague, often incoherent misery and revolution and teenage angst and romance, it grows so excruciating that ultimately it's the audience who become les misérables. C-

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