Mania Review: Les Miserables - Mania.com



Mania Review: Les Miserables

Mania Grade: A+

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  • Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen
  • Written by: Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil
  • Directed by: Tom Hooper
  • Studio: Universal Pictures
  • Rating: PG-13
  • Run Time: 158 minutes
  • Series:

Mania Review: Les Miserables

Wolverine sings!

By Rob Vaux     December 25, 2012
Source: Mania.com

We probably shouldn't be covering a splashy musical like Les Miserables on this site, but considering that the three leads are Wolverine, Catwoman and Jor-El, we hope you'll give us a pass. Also, it's the best picture of any sort this year. That means a tough sell for a cynical crowd, as well as for critics who might consider it too middlebrow to make for serious art. But in point of fact, Les Miserables challenges genre conventions more than any other film this year save perhaps The Dark Knight Rises; certainly more than your average pretentious art-house darling. It's big, it's bold and it’s unashamed to wear its emotions on its sleeve. It dares you to mock it, then hurls your sarcasm back in your face. If you're not careful, it will sweep you right off your feet: leaving you drained, stunned and more than a little moved.

Certainly, the story has stood the test of time, and in these days of the 99 percenters, its message feels more appropriate than ever. It delivers a 19th century Paris filled with the persecuted and downtrodden, notably Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) who stole a loaf of bread as a young man and spends the rest of his life living it down. Freed from prison after 20 years, he receives the god king of second chances from a forgiving priest who tasks him to do right by it. He largely does – becoming a prosperous business owner and politician with a record for charitable good works -- though his one notable failure demands a serious bill come due. After being wrongfully fired from his factory, young mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) turns to prostitution to feed her distant daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen first, later Amanda Seyfried). Valjean learns of the mistake too late, then vows to atone by raising Cosette as his own. He does all of this while avoiding the relentless Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who views Valjean's freedom as a personal affront.

Victor Hugo’s original novel has held up well enough to support dozens of incarnations, and the overarching class tensions surrounding the uprising of 1832 that he depicted seemingly haven’t changed at all. The rich live by different rules, while the poor suffer agonizing indignities just to survive. Director Tom Hooper paints the scene in broad but compelling strokes, unafraid to use the music and lyrics to push our emotional buttons. The big stars help, since we know their faces so well and can infer so much just by their personas. Jackman has a lengthy past in musical theater, and feels completely in his element here: a stirring performance that may be his best yet. Crowe lags behind him and the rest of the cast, but still manages better than early word would have it. He finds the menace in Javert, and balances it with his reliable singing skills to help the character fit in. (I never listened to the stage musical more than a few times and I have no idea how much it will impact longtime fans.)

Which brings us to the film's technical innovations: something subtle and not readily recognized at first glance. Rather than recording the songs before the fact and having the actors lip sync, Hooper records their voices live on set. A piano accompaniment during production is eventually replaced by a full orchestra, but the actors' voices come directly from the shoot itself. That provides an immediacy unseen in the annals of musical cinema, and contrasts the film's epic vision with moments of shockingly tender intimacy. Theatrical performances need to play to the cheap seats; all of the emotion needs to come out in the voice. Not only does Hooper put us right in the actors’ faces, but he delivers the vocal tone to perfectly compliment it.

You'll find no better evidence of this principle in effect than with Hathaway's showstopper of a musical number: five unbroken minutes that should win her an Oscar. Fantine has lost everything… selling her body for the first time, shorn off her hair and all but naked in the streets. Hooper places the actress's face against a black background. She's all alone with her despair and anguish, with absolutely nowhere to hide. Not only must she sell the character's emotional reality, she has to do it in key. I sobbed – openly sobbed – for the entirety of the scene, something I haven't done at the movies in well over a decade.

Hooper expands that to a full two-and-a-half hours, with a fearless cast by his side and an eye for staging that couldn’t play in any other medium. He avoids elaborate choreography, save for a few moments with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (playing a pair of innkeepers as requisite comic relief). Authenticity and realism are his goals. Only the singing marks it as a musical, a combination that would defeat a less skillful director (or even a more skillful one whose gamble didn’t pay off).

Here, it succeeds beyond his wildest ambitions, delivering not only a shattering rendition of the phenomenally popular musical, but a compelling case for one of the best musicals ever made. I’ve never been a keen aficionado of the genre, though the best of them can move me when they do well. Count this one among those ranks, a triumph not only for Hooper, but for a genre that may have some life in it yet. 

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

Showing items 1 - 10 of 31
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MrJawbreakingEquilibrium 12/25/2012 2:18:17 AM

Ha.  This movie is definitely going to be trashed by the Republicans and Fox News like The Muppet Movie and The Lorax. 

Muenster 12/25/2012 5:34:44 AM

Well what do you know... LIVs troll genre sites as well. 

HudsonTaco 12/25/2012 8:22:37 AM

 Well I hate musicals more than Rob hates 3D so I will not see this. Too bad there isn't a non-musical version as I have read the book and it was quite good. People breaking out into song just takes me completely out of the movie. 

goatartist 12/25/2012 9:28:29 AM

 Django review? Also is this Rob's first A ?

lazarus 12/25/2012 9:51:57 AM

 A no less. Yes Yes it is. And FYI Avengers was better than TDKR. So that is standard to go by Rob. 

blankczech 12/25/2012 10:17:11 AM

 Not sure why this is being reviewed on this website. 

Like Hudson Taco I am not a fan of musicals.

I will try to sit through this because....

1) Friends who saw it on Broadway say it was the best play ever           

2) Rob Vaux says "its the best pricture of any sort this year"

Didn't read the book but saw the 1935 movie which was pretty spectacular.

Definately will wait for Redbox rental or Premium Cable Channel release of this.

Lazarus...I think you're letting your admirable loyalty and fandom cloud your judgement on The Avengers

DougRed4 12/25/2012 10:23:54 AM

Thanks for reviewing this, Rob.  This is one of my mom's favorite stories, and I've been looking forward to seeing it, even though I also am rarely a fan of musicals.  This one sounds like it's fantastic!

decepticons2 12/25/2012 11:25:15 AM

Isn't the liam neeson and geofrey rush version from 98 a non musical, it has been so long.

jsmulligan 12/25/2012 11:32:06 AM

I'm pretty sure there is a non-musical version.  Could have sworn I've seen it before, as I'm familiar with the story but none of the songs.

This looks good.  Keep hearing great things about the performances, though some friends of mine who love the musical haven't been thrilled by the soundtrack.  Maybe it's because of the recording technique?  Might have taken it straight from the movie instead of having them sing it again in a studio.

Finally... please shut it, MJE.  No need to bring that sort of nonsense into the discussion.

mellowdoux 12/25/2012 12:14:17 PM

 Who is Les?

More importantly... why is he miserable?

 

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