Sunday, February 10, 2013

"Les Miz" - A Rambling Reaction to the Movie

I have never had the opportunity to see the play Les Miserables. I still hope to see it one day. I had mixed feelings when I heard they were making it into a movie. As a general rule, I prefer live stage productions to movie musicals. So it was with some trepidation that I went to see the movie.

From the beginning, I could feel my resistance to the singing threatening to ruin the experience for me, There is just something that doesn't work for me when I see a musical on the big screen. It doesn't seem "natural,"  Also, they used movie stars instead of opera or musical theater singers. I suppose that made sense.  Movie actors use subtle expressions, where stage actors (and especially opera singers) have to make grand gestures. The biggest problem with the casting was that, while they are both amazing actors, neither Russell Crowe nor Hugh Jackman has the pipes to stand up to their roles. For me, that almost ruined the whole thing. The other singers were for the most part very good. I was surprised that Ann Hathaway has such a lovely voice. Samantha Barks (Eponime) and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche) stole every scene they were in. Aron Tveit took my breath away as the rabble rousing Enjolras; I'd follow him into battle any day.

Only a few minutes into the film, I decided I either needed to leave or I had to put all my quibbling aside, lock up the Inner Critic, and simply let the story and the music wash over me. Once I did that, I enjoyed the movie.  And, yes, I cried. (Not as hard as the man behind me.)  It is a positively magnificent story. It is at once heart-rending and inspiring.  It is amazing that Hugo could craft such an uplifting story out of the vile cruelty that was 19th century French culture. I thought the film makers did a good job setting the stage at the beginning, showing the filth and degradation of the underbelly of France, with occasional glimpses of the grandeur in which the nobility lived. (I could not forget that the story is set only a few years after the Revolution that was supposed to do away with the monarchy and the class system. The response to the Terror had ultimately been to restore the monarchy, so the people were basically back to living in the mud where they had been before the Revolution.) The thing that really worked for me was the close ups of the filthy and diseased people of Paris. I can't imagine how they accomplish that on the stage.

Visually the movie is incredible. The scenes where Javert walks on the ledge on the rooftop of the building, made me close my eyes (I don't like heights, and the camera had me right on that ledge with Javert). It almost looked like 3-D. The battle scenes were very effective. The film makers managed to take advantage of the opportunity to show up-close, intimate details, and also pull back and let the grandeur of the story unfold. The funeral procession and the finale were fabulous.

Then there is the magnificent score! Even if the principal singers fell short, the music itself is positively fabulous. Snippets of similar melodies weaving in and out of songs throughout the show. The simple and lovely Castle on a Cloud sung by a child. The use of operatic trios and quartets was amazing.  The choral songs gave me goosebumps. The next day I downloaded the album featuring the original Broadway cast. It is truly amazing.

I could not help but think that a book as dense and complex as Les Miserables probably could not get published today. There are too many characters. There is too much overt symbolism. It's too preachy.  It's too melodramatic. It's a very complicated story and some important plot points hinge on unlikely coincidences. You have to pay attention. All of that is antithetical to contemporary story-telling which is supposed to be directed at people who skim and who want to find out what happens next, not wallow around in detail, no matter how beautifully written.

It's hard to sit through a  movie that is more than two hours long. The lady in front of me left about a half hour before it was over. I was definitely tired of sitting by the end. Perhaps it should have had an intermission, like the play would. (That said, I hate intermissions, however, because they break the suspense.)

All in all, it was a very good movie. This play has so many fans already and there are millions more like me who've longed to see it and never had the chance: it was going to be a hit no matter who they cast. They didn't need superstars like Crowe and Jackman in the lead roles. They'd have done better to cast lesser known actors who are better singers. [But if they had done that, people would have bitched about their acting. So, the poor film makers can't win.]

Buy it here*.

Note:  Tom Hooper did an amazing job reining in the epic that is Les Miz, but I think The King's Speech* really shows what the man can do with a good story.  He's going on my A-list of directors whose movies I'll look for regardless of who stars in them.

*Affiliate Link: buy great stuff and support this site for no extra charge.

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