Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

LES MISERABLES: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried (158 min.)

Before I get too far into this I feel it's my obligation to say I don't normally care for musicals.  I am exceedingly hard on the genre, as I find no real need for musicals.  They don't fit into my cinematic psyche.  I understand the greatness of West Side Story, of The Sound of Music, of Chicago.  I have seen them all, and I know what people like about them.  Personally, I cannot engage with them because characters breaking into song has never worked for me.  At the same time, I get it.  I promise I get it.  So I see musicals and I try my best to view them with an objective eye.  I say all that to say what I will say next.

Les Miserables is not one of the best films of the year.  Not even close.

Not because it is a musical.  Not because the acting is poor, or the songs don't work.  The live singing in the film is quite refreshing from the staged and choreographed songs of previous musicals (although Across the Universe employed this gimmick first).  The costumes and the settings are well done.  Even the acting is something to behold because of the mixture of singing and acting.  Never an easy task.  My issue lies within the rest of the film, the way it is shot and the way it comes across, as a sniveling and whimpering slog of a film with not much to root for.

Hugh Jackman is the draw, of course, playing Jean Valjean, the man imprisoned for five years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.  Once freed, Valjean is a lost soul for some time, bouncing around between the poor streets of a post revolutionary France.  Finally, he decides to break from his parole and take on a new identity and, within eight years, is mayor of a small town.  All the while he must hide from the tireless Inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe as a stone-faced lawman.  In this small villa, Valjean meets Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a timid young woman who is fired from her job, forced to sell her hair, her fillings, and ultimately her body in order to simply survive.  With such a celebrated story throughout the years, it is no surprise then that Fantine dies early in the picture, and Valjean takes it upon himself to care for her daughter, Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried.  The cat-and-mouse between Valjean and Javert runs throughout the film as Valjean finds Cosette and, eventually, finds himself in the midst of a love triangle.

Here is a film with a background as epic as what is shown on the screen.  Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the celebrated Broadway musical, and following a film adaptation in 1998, Les Miserables carries with it more prestige than any film I could imagine.  The scope of this Tom Hooper version aims for the stars, for the universe, and surely is grand.  But Hooper sabotages his own work, much in the way he did (in my humble opinion) with The King's Speech.  A grand film as such needs grandness in its camera, in its style and panache.  Hooper zooms in for close ups at an alarming rate.  It almost feels that the film is a collection of close ups strung together with choppy editing and quick shots.

Close ups are meant to emphasize certain aspects of a film and a moment, and should be used sparingly in intense or vital moments of the story.  Yet Hooper decides on using these shots endlessly, and when these wonderful actors are singing of their despair everything slows down, grows even more dire than what is needed, and is ultimately tiresome.  Pan out sometimes, show us the surroundings, mix up the cinematography a little.  Alas, this is what we have and the end result is, at least to this one musical Nazi, a cold and monotonous experience.