Friday, January 11, 2013
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, skips out on parole in 1815 France. He reinvents himself as M. Le Mer, Mayor of a small town, but keeps crossing paths with Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), his old tormentor. Valjean raises Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the orphaned daughter of misbegotten Fantine (Anne Hathaway). In 1832 Paris, Cosette falls for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), member of the ABC Club of student revolutionaries. Everyone grows entangled in a failed student uprising, which leads to bloodshed but leaves nothing resolved.
In its stage incarnation, Les Miserables has been pleasing audiences worldwide since 1980. On the basis of the film, it speaks little of theatergoers' taste. Victor Hugo's dense, intricate historical novel is boiled down to the crudest soap, replacing its social commentary and rich characters with overbaked melodrama. Perhaps the endless singing and naked, cloying emotionalism work better on stage. On film it makes for a tiresome 157 minutes.
The material's operatic approach is a major gripe. True, there are several show-stopping tunes on display. But the constant singing dulls their impact, investing even the most banalities with false grandeur. For every memorable song there's two clunkers. Worse, the big character numbers sound the same notes endlessly, without variation or development. After hearing Javert ponder his devotion to the law for the 40th time it loses impact.
This repetitive character non-development takes its toll, leaving its protagonists one-dimensional. Valjean's conversion from vengeful thief to honorable man is interesting in Hugo's novel. On film, he scrambles through plot points - here Valjean's a thief, now a Mayor, then a Paris recluse - without noticeably developing. Similarly, Javert's obsession with Valjean never achieves the required grandeur. He's not a tragic villain but a doltish brute. Young lovers Marius and Cosette are invested with soaring, tragic pathos that they haven't remotely earned.
My Week With Marilyn) and Amanda Seyfried (Mean Girls) show admirable pluck inhabiting featherweight characters.
Les Mis's gems lurk in the corners. There's Anne Hathaway, truly heartbreaking for the 15 minutes she's onscreen. Her one-take, bravura performance of I Dreamed a Dream inspired a tear in even this cynical blogger. There's Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter's hilarious doubles-act as Cosette's adoptive parents, performing the incomparable Master of the House. There are no-name supporting players like Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit who steal their scenes. However limited their screen-time, these characters provide sorely needed life.
But even they can't overcome Tom Hooper's awful direction. Never mind Hooper's anemic staging of conventional set pieces: 20 students standing on broken chairs isn't a revolution, it's a frat party. The musical numbers are endless close-ups, no matter how dramatic or colorful the song, complete with his trademark egregious angling and baroque framing. In John Adams and The King's Speech it's merely an irritating quirk; here it's a deal breaker. Isn't one of the pleasures of a musical spectacle? Why all the rich costumes and expensive sets if we're staring endlessly at Russell Crowe's atonal maw? Would it kill Hooper to hire a choreographer for some real dance numbers?
In short, Les Miserables stinks. And at two-and-a-half interminable hours, the smell grows unbearable.