By Christopher P. Jacobs
Director Tom Hooper’s effective screen adaptation of the musical stage version of Victor Hugo’s epic novel “Les Misérable,” earned eight Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Actor (Hugh Jackman), and Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway), and remains among the top ten boxoffice attractions in its sixth week of release. Hathaway truly deserves her nomination and just might win, although Sally Field may be a sentimental favorite for “Lincoln” and Jacki Weaver has a chance if “Silver Linings Playbook” manages to sweep.
The story follows several decades in the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man imprisoned 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. When finally paroled, he is hounded for the rest of his life by a cruelly strict police officer named Javert (Russell Crowe), who believes that all criminals are criminal by nature. He changes his name and eventually becomes the factory-owning mayor of a town, and promises to raise the daughter of a dying young prostitute named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whom he inadvertently had driven to prostitution when he allowed his sleazy foreman to fire her. The girl grows up into the beautiful Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) who falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), but Javert is still obsessed with recapturing the ex-con who had stopped reporting to his parole officer and vanished years before.
There are plenty of other subplots and diversions, the most entertaining which involves the disreputable innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), who, just as the stage actors in their roles, tend to steal the show during their scenes (and are about the only comic relief throughout the heavily dramatic plot). There’s also a touching parallel, interlocking romance with the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (a moving performance by newcomer Samantha Barks, if slightly abridged from the stage production), who is also in love with Marius.
The musical version of the story is really more of an opera than a musical, with arias, duets, and recitatives replacing voiceover monologues and dialogue, which may be disconcerting to the few viewers who are not aware in advance that the film’s talking is almost all sung rather than spoken. The music itself skillfully blends the styles of popular musical showtunes with classical opera (with themes “borrowed” from Gounod’s “Faust”). The unusual decision to film the actors singing as their voices were being recorded (rather than to pre-record all the songs, as most musicals do) may also be disconcerting to fans of musicals.
Many of the songs are also done in long, uninterrupted takes with one or multiple cameras. The technique results in some incredibly intense, emotional performances captured on screen, but it also sacrifices some of the polished vocal style and flashy visual generally inherent to movie musicals. It also results in some audio mixes that sound relatively thin compared to the heavily produced recordings typically made for actors to lip-sync to. The pure emotion that flows from the performances more than makes up for these drawbacks, however. All the actors sing their own parts, and all have voices very well suited to their characters.
Some fans of the 1980 stage musical (which premiered on Broadway in 1987) are divided in their response to the film, which even at two-and-a-half hours shortens and deletes songs from the play, yet puts back things from earlier stage productions and the novel, and adds a few other things, opening up scenes to depict what couldn’t possibly be shown on stage. The film also includes some spoken dialogue, whereas the stage show generally had its dialogue sung. Nevertheless, the film is very faithful to the stage version in both content and spirit. The musical, after all, had to delete much of the novel in its transition to live theatrical production, and this film is just one of numerous attempts to transfer Hugo’s massive book about crime, punishment, relentless pursuit, and personal redemption to the screen.
Naturally, the French have made the most and most in-depth movie adaptations of their countryman’s world-famous work, a 281-minute three-part film in 1934 (on DVD from Criterion) and a 217-minute 1958 film (coming this month to Blu-ray from Olive), plus others running around three hours each, and all well-received. The two classic American film versions were the 1935 film starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton at only 110, and a 1952 film with Michael Rennie and Robert Newton running an even tighter 106 minutes minutes (both on flipsides of the same DVD from Fox Home Video). The 1998 version with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush (with Uma Thurman and Claire Danes in the roles Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried have in the musical) had mixed critical response and was 134 minutes (recently and not-coincidentally released to Blu-ray by Sony).
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