Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Miz

I would urge everyone to see Les Miserables, the film adaptation of the great stage musical.  My wife and I had been looking forward to seeing the film version since it opened last Christmas Day, and we finally got to see it a few days ago and I can report that it is a faithful adaptation of the stage play. Practically everything is still there: the great and moving story; the wonderful, memorable music and lyrics; and a beautiful and attractive cast.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the stage play should certainly go. It is far above the usual movie fare. However, it is perhaps even more important for those who love the stage version to see the film in order to appreciate why audiences have flocked to the stage version for so long. The stage version packed an emotional wallop that for some reason the film version fails to deliver. Les Miz has been playing to packed houses all over the globe for over 25 years, and my wife and I have seen it on Broadway and in traveling companies at least four or five times. Every performance ended with a prolonged standing ovation. What has happened?

In the first place, I believe that most of the responsibility rests on the shoulders of director Tom Hooper who time after time uses or overuses film techniques that have the effect of taking the actors out of the show. For example, in the play we are introduced to Thenardier, the scoundrel innkeeper, and his low-down wife in the great comic number, “Master of the House.” In the play the scene always brings down the house as Thenardier is given ample opportunity to milk the scene for all it’s worth. Unfortunately, director Hooper uses MTV like cross cutting to obscure the action and remove any comic effect. Maybe Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were not up to the roles, but it seemed to me that the rapid cutting never gave them a chance.

Second, Hooper uses the close-up camera way too much. For example, Anne Hathaway sings Fantine’s signature song, “I Dreamed a Dream” almost entirely in close-up. In my opinion the interminable close up weakens, not strengthens, the emotional intensity of the number. Hathaway never got a chance to use her body to express emotion. Close ups work best when done sparingly or when more than one actor is involved. The “Heart Full of Love” number between Marius, Cosette, and Eponine was very moving and brilliantly edited. The actors who played these three roles were as good as any I’d seen on the stage.

I also believe that the film had major casting problems. The play showed that a good play and good roles don’t require stars, and indeed can make stars out of relative nobodies.  Plaudits have been given to Hugh Jackman for his portrayal of Jean Valjean but, in my opinion, he lacked the necessary strength or gravitas for this central role. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has been panned for his Inspector Javert, but I think he turned in an excellent performance. His singing voice has been criticized but I thought he handled his numbers very well.

Sadly, I believe that even Colm Wilkenson, who played the original Jean Valjean on stage, was miscast as the ascetic bishop who gives Valjean a chance at the outset of the play. He reminded me of Edmund Gwenn’s portrayal of Kris Kringle in the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. There was little hint of the spiritual power of the ascetic bishop who bought Valjean’s soul for God.

I hate to criticize a film that I think everyone should try to see. I could be wrong and I must confess that parts of the film did bring tears to my eyes. But many of the great numbers just left me with little emotional response. I would just suggest that anyone look at the following YouTube clip of “One Day More” done in concert and just compare it with the film version. ###

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