Sunday, January 13, 2013

Funny Odd Film Review - Les Miserables

The Summer of my  13th birthday,  National Public Radio aired an adaptation of  Victor Hugo's  classic (and massive) novel  Les Miserables.   It aired  in the early evenings, just as  our family was getting ready for dinner so  we would have  it on in the Kitchen.  I remember  being not that  interested after hearing the  first  couple of episodes, but  eventually found myself getting drawn into the story.

The next year,  I  was sitting in my school library with friends and someone wondered aloud what book  had not been checked out in the longest  period of time.   So I went up to the  information desk and asked the librarian.   She handed me a dewy decimal number on a slip if paper  and  pointed to a dimly lit section of the stacks.    Turns out it was a dusty hard cover penguin classics copy of ... Les Miserables.   It had last been read in  1971.   So I checked it out, and  set to reading it.  All nearly  2,000 pages of it.

 It is an incredibly  powerful story.   The two main characters each embody a different view of  God.   The  former convict, Jean Valjean, representing  the  New Testament view of a forgiving  loving God , while the  police inspector Javert, being the Old Testament's fire and brimstone God who shall wreak wrath and vengeance  upon the sinner.

Little did I realize at the time  just  how dangerous an age  fourteen years old is to read  something like Les Miserables.   As a young man struggling to come to terms with my own  complex relationship with faith,  I found things in both characters I related to.   I ended up keeping the book  for most the rest of that year.

Three years later, while a student in Germany  I would make a special trip to London  for one reason, and one reason only.  I was desperate to see the new Musical  version of the story, that had recently opened in the West End at the Palace Theater.

I remember standing outside the Theatre as I snapped this picture,  wondering if a stage adaptation could possibly live up  my expectations.  Would the actors portray Hugo's characters the way  I had heard them so clearly in my head when I read the book?      I remember stumbling out of the theatre later that night, on an emotional high,  convinced that the original  Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) cast  had somehow read my mind and brought my own images of the characters to life before my eyes.  

It would be the start of  a more than twenty five year  love affair with this show.   I would go on to see it on stage again  nearly 20 times.  Seeing it in Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee,  San Francisco,  New York,  Munich, Amsterdam, Seoul South Korea, and multiple times again here in London.   So  when the show's  producer  Cameron Macintosh announced there was finally going to be a film adaptation of the show,  I was both excited and  worried,  very  worried.

The transition from  stage to screen  historically  has been problematic for many successful  shows.   For every, brilliant adaptation like "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Funny Girl",  there is the sheer awfulness of a  "Jesus Christ Superstar" and (ugh!) abominations like the film version of  "Camelot".  So I deliberately  did not  read reviews of the film before  going to see it  this evening.

As the lights  dimmed at the movie theater I actually  held my breath...

Film is a very different  medium obviously so  first of  all lets be clear,  this is not an adaptation of the stage show.  It is an entirely new version of the Musical.   The well publicized move to have the actors sing live on the set instead of to a pre-recorded track does give it a  theater - feel though and adds a wonderful realism to the movie.  Likewise, the overall look  of  the movie  is  darker,  grittier and  more  realistic  than the stage version.  The mud, rain, grime and poverty of  19th century Paris  is not left  the imagination.  It also feels  much more intimate  thanks to the use  close up shots.  So as odd it sounds the  stage show  actually feels  "bigger"  in scale than the film does.

Yet  when all is said and done, the film works.   But for very different reasons than the stage show.

Hugh Jackman and Colm Wilkinson
One reason is the cast.   Hugh Jackman  delivers an emotional  and powerful  performance as  Jean Valjean.  As Javert,  Russel Crowe , bless him,  really can't sing. (Insert, your favorite Pierce Brosnan "Mama Mia" reference here...)   But  he carries it off.   His performance is not  the strongest in the film, but  he sings on key and  doesn't  do any damage.  No, he isn't a singer, but  when it counts  his acting hits the right notes. So  good on him.

Sasha Baron-Cohen and  Helena Bonham Carter  get the job done as the Thenadiers, delivering the needed comic moments.  Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried  and Samantha Barks  all deliver solid performances as the lovers  Marius and Cossette,  and the tragic Eponine .   There is also the inspired casting choice of  Colm Wilkinson, the original  stage Jean Valjean in the role of the saintly Bishop who sets Valjean on the road to redemption.

The hands down, clear  surprise in this cast in Anne Hathaway  as  Fantine.    Her Oscar-nominated performance as the tragic mother of Cosette  is  quite simply stunning.   It is little wonder they  used snipits  for the  film's teaser trailer.

So my verdict?  If you are going expecting an experience exactly like that of seeing the show on stage you will be disappointed.  Film is not Theatre  but  the music  of the show clearly  transfers mediums  with the same powerful emotional punch  it packs live  on Broadway or the West end.    I  thoroughly  enjoyed the  film version and   left the cinema with the same emotions  I did when seeing the show live on stage.

 Is it everything I hoped it would be?  No.  But it certainly  came close enough to have me want to go back and see it again,  both on stage and on screen.

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