Friday, December 28, 2012
Tom Hooper's LES MISERABLES
Every movie you come across, every experience, you have to be subjective when you come to it, and you have to bring your own experiences with it beforehand. With Les Miserables, or, just say it, 'Lay-Miz', I hadn't seen the musical before, in person or on video, didn't listen to the album, nor read the book or see any of the other movie adaptations (though after this I would like to). I came into it fresh, though knowing and/or respecting the cast assembled. And Tom Hooper's a good man to have for a period-piece after works like John Adams (for HBO) and the King's Speech (for Harvey Weinstein/Oscar glory). So, I just got to be honest... the music, in general, doesn't do it for me.
It's a simple thing: it's not exactly a 'musical', it's an opera (or, what's the term, 'libretto' or other?) Everybody sings, and if I counted correctly there is about, perhaps, 3 to 5 percent of speaking dialog among what are a whole lot of just characters singing their dialog, all in rhyme, between some big set pieces and other numbers that just kinda, you know, stop suddenly. And because not much, if at all, has changed from the musical, there's an odd sort of contradiction going on dramatically that I found consistently interesting, if unnerving: here Hooper presents a very realistic, vivid depiction of 1815-1832-ish Paris, down to the cobblestones and grime and Terry Gilliam-esque direction (which I actually enjoyed, more often than not, though it got tiresome near the end), and yet... it's still a slavishly faithful adaptation of the staged setting.
Again, very interesting, this split. But, for me, the characters, with the exception of a few of the leads (i.e. Jean Valjean, and... maybe Marius to a small extent, or arguably Javert but with TOO much subtlety compared to everything else), there's no character development or growth that I could latch on to. Valjean is also a saint from minute one to the last, with Hooper especially emphasizing the Christ-like metaphor by the last scene. And so that leaves the music. And the singing. Lots and lots of singing. Sometimes singing about just moving from a place to another. And there is usually movement, or something not, from the camera to go along with this. And sometimes it matches up very well, such as Fatine's iconic 'Dreamed a Dream', where Hooper never cuts through the bulk of the song and practically gift-wraps her Oscar for her (and yes, it IS a showstopper, as well it should be). Other times, such as the other great (and just most fun) number 'Master of the House' with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the inn-keepers, the camera and cutting has to just try to keep up with their energy.
But... there is just so MUCH there 'there', that it becomes too overwhelming, especially when in the second half, for me, the less interesting plot of the revolutionaries kicks in. This ties in, to be sure, with the Valjean/Javert conflict, which is the sort that is captivating at first and then... trickles off. I attribute this to Crowe's performance, far more than to do with Jackman, who is there for every scene and every beat and who could be my anchor through even the silly-sappy moments, because of a general stiffness to his character. And the singing isn't the issue, which other critics have latched on to. For what it's worth he can belt it out (almost) as much as the best of them, and is a decent contrast to, say, the almost unintentionally funny soprano pipes on Redmayne. But as far as a performance, sensing him in the character, it never clicked, which is a big problem as he's the villain of the piece. Upstanding and official, sure, it's called for. But there's little life I could send in what Crowe was playing. It just came off as going beat for beat.
To the film's credit, when the actors can click, such as Hathaway, it's thrilling (albeit she, too, has to amp up the drama to make Fatine even BIGGER in the scope of Hooper's lens, then again it's a smaller part than I expected). Hell, I didn't mind some of Hooper's wonky stylistic choices, at least on the whole, since that was one thing I was hoping to make the landscape different (cutting is a different story - when the action sparks up with the rebels vs the soldiers, it's a frenzy). But... it comes back to just not finding an in, personally, with the framework of the constant singing. It's almost unfair to say it, but I'll go there - because of so much singing, where every line, however trivial, is part of a song, the real big numbers almost became undermined. One of the great things in a movie musical is to have something that can move you, but, like any good song, you can remember. Aside from 'Dreamed a Dream', 'Master of the House', and most of 'One Day', where everybody gets a number layered like a symphonic-onion, I couldn't tell you what a song or tune was in Les Mis. For me, that was an issue that couldn't be totally resolved.
And yet, as a critic, my job is to tell you what I thought of it. Should I also say what you might find in it? I don't know. You all will come to Les Miserables with your own preconceptions, or come to it fresh. I can say that shards of the film counted, moments and scenes, even with a character I didn't feel I got enough time with like Samantha Barks's Eponine who sings about her love for a character and, for a few minutes, I really could feel it and connect... before it was over. Do you go for inspirational, quasi-or-all-the-way Christian-inspired schmaltz? Do you like seeing such daring-do (relatively) as seeing actors sing their songs live on camera without the lip-sync? Or are you a big fan just wanting to relive the experience you saw on stage for much less a ticket price, more popcorn, more trailers, and more close- ups? Then have at it. Les Miserables is a movie I think will split audiences, but to those that love it, it will be BIG, meaningful, impactful. For those that hated it... I hear you, too. It's a work, as music, as film, as performance, that will give you a good sex-session. How you take it, depends entirely on the strokes.