Thursday, January 3, 2013

Les Miserables

The plot for Les Miserables is a complex one, so I will only summarize a little bit. Jean Valjean served 19 years in jail and then sheds his identity to escape his criminal past during during the aftermath of the French Revolution. There is so much more that the film is about, but that's the gist of it. I was extremely excited to see this film. I have been listening to the original cast soundtrack since forever with my family and I've seen the stage play about 5 times. I know every lyric and every musical line. I really didn't expect to see or feel anything different because I am so familiar with the source material. I was proven wonderfully wrong. This film made the music and story fresh and new to me.

The look of the film is realistic and shows what the musical tends to gloss over: the poor, the dirt, the awful living conditions, and the reality of living in France after the French Revolution. The entire story is put into harsh perspective and put me on the edge of tears right from the beginning because of the realistic pain and suffering of the characters. The way Jean Valjean is treated after serving his time in jail and the conditions Fantine is subjected to after losing her job. The whole film has a raw quality that puts it in stark contrast to the stage play. Despite the lyrics and the makeup on stage, the audience doesn't feel the depression and plight of the poor being portrayed. Everything is put into perspective. The barricade is rather slap dash and small because that's what poor people in France would have been able to spare for it as opposed to the huge construct in the play. The lovely ladies look much more dirty and tired with grotesquely painted faces that inspire more pity than desire. Valjean lived in a constant state of paranoia, ready to flee at any moment and unable to make any lasting ties. I loved that the film took the familiar setting and costumes of the play and brought them into reality.

The rawness of the film also extends to the singing, which is probably the most controversial issue. I personally loved the singing and acting. The focus isn't to just sound like a great singer or even to perform the songs flawlessly, but to convey the emotions of the character. These unpolished performances are oftentimes my favorite renditions of the songs over studio versions. The broadway versions are well sung, but don't have the right emotional impact and seem to be too concerned with hitting everything perfectly. Anne Hathaway as Fantine in particular performed phenomenally. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream moved me to tears when I never thought much of the song before. This portrayal of raw emotion suddenly made this song one of my favorites. Eddie Redmayne as Marius also greatly impressed me, possessing the most wonderful voice out of the whole cast. I had always dismissed him as the annoying, flat Romeo of the play that just mooned over Juliet/Cosette. The film fleshed out some of his backstory and made him a real, likable character with more aspirations and motivations than just his instalove relationship. His performance of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is among my favorites and I don't think the emotion of that scene has ever been translated that well before. The other actors are good as well, but these two really stood out to me as talented actors that changed my perspective on their characters and songs.

As with any adaptation, the plot and order of events is slightly changed and, for the most part, are improvements to the story. With the play, I was confused as to the logistics of how Valjean escaped with little Cosette and evaded Javert for so long. The film clarifies this and fills in the gaps that were previously left out. Some of the songs were shuffled around a little bit, but the changed order makes more sense to me. Having Lovely Ladies before I Dreamed a Dream makes more sense plotwise and provides the second song with much more emotional impact because Fantine had already hit rock bottom. I appreciated the expansion of Marius' backstory and how he turned his back on his wealthy family to fight for what he felt was right. It showed much more strength and dedication than just the superficial relationship between him and Cosette.

The problems I have with the movie are pretty minor. I hate that a lot of the cinematography during the singing portions is super close up on the actors' faces. I can see a few shots like this for emotional impact, but in every single song is a little excessive. The other annoyance is the shortening or omission of important songs. A Little Fall of Rain is a very important and I was shocked to see that it was shortened. The song Turning was practically taken out altogether save for the very beginning of it. The new song Suddenly didn't really have any impact on the film and I thought it was unneeded when other, better songs were cut short. These are relatively small problems and I felt the film was very successful and effective.

Les Miserables is the best film adaptation of the play I could have asked for. The performances are nothing short of amazing. (Yes, even Russell Crowe was good in his restrained version of Javert.) I have only seen the film once on Christmas and I plan to see it again soon. I would highly recommend it to fans of musicals that don't mind stripped down, imperfect renditions of these songs.

My rating: 9.5/10 fishmuffins

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