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Thursday, December 27, 2012

'Les Miserables' Lands Somewhere Between Soaring and Miserable

Les Miserables is a long movie. There's nothing wrong with that in itself; the problem is that it feels like a long movie.

I had high hopes for this film based on the previews, but I must admit to being underwhelmed. The sets are grand, the direction is sweeping and the acting isn't bad - some of it is quite good. But the story itself is so melodramatic, at points verging on maudlin, that I couldn't help wonder about the wisdom of making this film as a musical.

Musicals, unless they're titled The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins, often don't translate well to film. Watching a musical performed on stage can be pure joy (George Takei's Allegiance being a great example), but it often loses something when it's projected onto the big screen - much in the same way baseball is best enjoyed at the stadium, rather than on TV.

Part of the difficulty with Les Miserables is that the story itself is somewhat melodramatic, at times verging on the maudlin. The death scenes seem designed to tug at the heartstrings, which has the opposite effect - robbing them of their poignancy. Adding music to the equation only enhances this effect, and it seems at times (particularly in the end) that the story has gone pretty far over the top.

The performances are generally solid. Anne Hathaway almost redeems the movie by herself, because she's a great singer in addition to a believable actress in the role of Fantine. She's the most realistic, sympathetic character in the film by a long way. But she's only in the first third of the picture. Many of the other characters to be represent some aspect of human existence, rather than being full-fledged human beings in their own right. Javert is "the law," Jean Valjean is "the virtuous martyr," Cosette and Marius are that well-worn staple of "star-crossed love at first sight." 

Among the other actors, Russell Crowe is believable as Javert, and Hugh Jackman shows his chops as an actor (if not so much as a singer) as Jean Valjean. When he asks, "Who am I?" once or twice in the film, however, I couldn't help seeing him as Wolverine uttering a similar line in the X-Men series. Sacha Baron Cohen is delightful in a comic relief role, where he and Helena Bonham-Carter play well off each other as a sort of 19th-century cross between Bonnie and Clyde and Fred and Ethel. 

Still, I far prefer the 1998 (non-musical) version with Liam Neeson, Claire Danes and Geoffrey Rush. That film is just as long as the current incarnation, but it doesn't seem as long. It's not a musical, so while it retains the story's inherent sense of unbridled angst and recrimination, it isn't amplified by the inherent emotionalism of a musical discourse. 

To be sure, some of the music in the current release is powerful and moving. Fantine's musical soliloquy early in the movie is a great example. But the fact that virtually all the dialogue is sung blunts some of the impact that might have been achieved by setting moments like this more clearly apart from spoken conversation.

Many will enjoy Les Miserables, and there's much to enjoy (it is, after all, a very long movie). It just didn't turn out to be my particular cup of tea.

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