Sunday, January 13, 2013

Les Misérables (2012)

There are several ways of seeing and analysing Les Misérables. It is an evocative social commentary, as relevant today as it was in the 19th century. It is a bombastic musical, which is not everybody's cup of tea. It is a Dickensian tragedy, very similar to Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. In its simplest, most universal form, however, it is a story about people struggling to be a good in an unforgiving world that encourages them to act otherwise. There are no villains here: not Javert , not even the innkeepers. There are simply characters fighting their fates and the place that society decides for them; people choosing to be good (or evil) in a cruel world that tests them at every step; acting morally, even if, sometimes, it is a choice condemnation and damnation. Their goodness takes the form of sacrifices, courage, bravery and a naive sense of hope and optimism. Tom Hooper's adaptation makes their moral choices its focus and therefore, emerges as a gratifying, magnificent and glorious adaptation of the musical phenomenon.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to save his dying nephew. On release, he breaks parole and with the kindness of a clergyman, chooses to make an honest living and rise in society as the respectable Monsieur Lemar. Chasing him relentlessly is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), a man who sees the law and is blind to the social realities in which it operates. Due to a misunderstanding at Jean Valjean's factory, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired and forced to take up a life of prostitution to pay the cruel innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen) responsible for the upbringing of her illegitimate daughter Cosette. When Valjean realises this, he promises a dying Fantine to be a father to Cosette. As Cosette grows old (Amanda Seyfried), she falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is also loved by Eponine (Samantha Barks), the destitute daughter of the  innkeepers. But revolution is brewing in Paris, and the ensuing events shape the fates of all these characters.

The film remains faithful to the musical from start to end adapting the sing-song format. There are no spoken dialogues in the film. At a sprawling 158 minutes, it does test your patience, particularly with the overlong epilogue. However, this is a minor flaw in what is otherwise, a soulful, haunting adaptation of the stage production. Hooper executes the story playing to the strengths of the medium, making it a truly cinematic experience rather than a stagey one. His decision of recording the songs live rather than using pre-recorded music lends the movie an emotional depth not seen in musicals before.

Despite the tremendous production values, Hooper never lets the scale upstage the story and keeps his camera squarely focused on the actors. In The King's Speech, I thought his off-centre camera placement in key moments helped establish the characters better. Here again, his camera placement lends an added layer of intimacy and urgency to their emotional experience. The camera doesn't waver from Anne Hathaway's face even in the slightest during "I Dreamed a Dream", bringing every tear, every bruise, every vein and wrinkle into sharp focus. Because of this, the song (and the film) packs an emotional punch that is difficult to dodge.

Of course, this would all be a disaster if it wasn't for the stupendous performance of the entire cast. Hugh Jackman delivers a career-defining performance as Jean Valjean. He mesmerises us as he undergoes physical transformations and brings to life the agony and the pain of Jean Valjean. It is difficult to imagine a more powerful performance than his at the Oscars this year. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks as the doomed Fantine and Eponine are sure to drive up the stocks of Kleenex and other tissue making companies. Playing perhaps the two most memorable tragic characters in musical history, they brings these characters alive for the silver screen and immortalise them. Carter and Cohen are absolutely wicked as the innkeepers and are sure to bring the house down. Daniel Huttlestone as the child, Gavroche is absolutely unforgettable.

At the end of the day, Les Misérables is a great story that is adapted exceeding well by Tom Hooper. He does well to relegate the grand production to the background and bringing the characters to the fore; making us love them, hate them, root for them and cry for them. This is strong storytelling at its best. Carry tissues though. You are probably going to need them.

Rating: 4/5