Monday, January 07, 2013
Movie Review - Les Miserables
I already knew something of the acting and singing talents of Amada Seyfried, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. I've also always been impressed with Helena Bonham Carter. However, I was a pretty nervous about Russell Crowe as Javert and I'm not a big fan of Sacha Baron Cohen and had no idea about his singing ability (though my brother pointed out he was in the recent movie adaptation of Sweeney Todd).
I didn't see any specific "billing" on previews and such so I did a search and was pleased to find that for Eponine they cast Samantha Barks who doesn't have much screen acting but has plenty of musical background including recently starring as Eponine in London. With this initial introduction I think perhaps I'm on the side of being slightly more "stage" snobby than perhaps I should have. To an extent, that did slant my opinion of the film.
With the opening scene it was quickly clear that this musical was being presented as more than a simple adaptation. First of all, they made the opening "Look Down" sequence dramatically over-the-top in terms of the scale of the set and the level of danger and frustration faced by the prisoners. In the stage version the prisoners appear to be working in some sort of a quarry pounding rocks or some such menial labor.
In the film, the prisoners are pulling on massive ropes/cables to literally pull a ship out of the sea and into harbor. They are being pounded by crashing waves from the ocean as well as rain pelting from above. High on the walls of the harbor, Javert is literally "looking down" on them as they work.
At the end of the scene, he stops Valjean and has him do a piece of work that showcases Valjean's amazing strength. I loved the grand spectacle of this scene in terms of just how large and intense everything was. I felt like some of the passion and grandeur of the orchestra and even the singing was lost amid the crashing of waves.
And thus begins my general critique of the film. The previous few sentences sort of sum up my feeling of this movie in almost every scene.
I absolutely loved that we were able to get so up close and intimate with the characters during each of these scenes. It's like having the ultimate front row seat at the theater. You're able to see the despair, the pain, the passion, the emotion. Everything is writ large and visible on the close up shots of each of the characters.
Additionally, because this was a film it was able to go all out in terms of spectacle and detail. I loved the wonderfully detailed and vivid settings. The costumes, hair and makeup and other small details were equally impressive and really served to make each scene feel remarkably close and real. All of this combined to increase the emotional attachment and intensity of each scene in the movie.
At the same time, I felt like the structure, content and way the scenes flowed actually detracted from the intensity and passion of the story. The film version did not remain 100% "sung through" like the stage version. The film was still almost exclusively sung but there were quite a few times where the actors would stop singing and speak a line or a few lines.
Sometimes these spoken lines were still spoken in rhyme and even with some tempo such that it was apparent that the spoken words were still part of a "song" while other times the moments of speech existed presumably to make the scene more "natural" or to clarify or expound on something.
Along with this, there were times when the actors (especially Russell Crowe) sang the lines much softer almost without emotion or at the very least seemingly lacking in the passion due a particular song. As a result, I felt like a lot of the songs lost a lot of their "punch" and intensity, instead relying on the spectacle of the filmmaking to create the emotional draw for the scene.
Both of Javert's key songs (Stars and Javert's Suicide) felt this way to me. I felt like he was just idly singing his songs while expecting the camera angles and great scenery to do the work of engaging you in the scene. Strangely I felt like Marius went to the other side and tried to force emotion through his vibratto. He had a nice voice, but his execution left me a little flat.
Overall, I still absolutely loved this movie. The story is so absolutely amazing. I keep intending to read the original novel but even just based on what I know from musical and movie versions of the story I find myself inspired and engaged by the tale of Valjean.
I thought the artistic depiction of Paris and the amazing spectacle of scenery, costumes and makeup really created a vivid sensory experience of the life and times of our characters. I loved the passion and intensity that came out through the great close up shots possible in a film.
I was a little disappointed by the musical aspect of the film. Not only did I feel like some of the sound effects dampened the power of the orchestra but I really felt like the pacing and direction of the scenes tended to pull down the emotional passion and draw available in many of the songs to the point where it almost felt like the intent was to make it seem like this wasn't a musical so much as a movie that happened to have singing in it. There were a few wonderful renditions of the songs but for the most part I still prefer the stage soundtracks to this one.
I still definitely recommend this movie. Sadly the pros and cons tend to balance each other out to create a moderately decent film adaptation of this absolutely amazing and stirring stage musical.
Even though I was a little disappointed, I do acknowledge that I went in with fairly high expectations. In the end the movie still is very good and well worth watching. Even my brother said he enjoyed it and was glad he went (and he is not a fan of musicals….and that's an understatement).
If you have the opportunity (and the money) to see the stage version, I would recommend you do so (know that it is necessarily going to be pared down in terms of set and effects). Given the choice, I might instead pull out my Cast Recordings and close my eyes and listen. Still I certainly do recommend this movie as a good, less expensive option if you can't make it to the stage show.
4 out of 5 stars