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Les Miserables Film Review: Revolutionary Performances in a Royal Classic

Musicals can be an extremely challenging medium to translate into cinema.  I say this while completely realizing countless musicals have been translated into films and a number of them have won Best Picture Oscars.  The magic that can be found on the stage can be very different than the magic contained on the silver screen.  Cinema can often be something very intimate for a viewer, while a large scale musical production resonates in a different way.  The difference between the two worlds is what makes the recent cinematic adaption of Les Miserable an impressive feat, since it showcases live singing performances rather than typical post-production lip synching.

The live vocals were continually mentioned in the marketing.  But one would quickly realize there is likely a reason that almost all films add the vocals after filming.  Sure, vocals are almost always live on the stage, but the performances are also often inside one building and are absent of things like CGI too.  When embracing the world of live theatre, you expect people to break out into song and dance, and you accept that the window lacks glass and the police officer pushes a wall off stage with his exit.  Film often brings a certain type of realism and tackles deeper subjects, and if you see a stage hand removing set pieces then you instantly declare it a B-movie.  Live singing is part of the magic of theatre, but the ability to edit is part of the magic of cinema.

If there is one thing that will cause the 2012 film version of Les Miserables to be remembered, it will be the brilliance of several of the performances.  The performances would have never been able to capture the audience the same way without those live vocals.  There were moments when the performers released their heart and soul into their songs and it sunk deep into the audience's own souls.  It allowed for a connection and resonance that is quite rare in film musicals.

Les Miserables is entirely sung, except for maybe one or two lines.  Now, this is obviously something a theatre fan would already be aware, but cinema is far more mainstream and the grosses seem to show it grabbed a hold of a wider audience.  The fact the performers continually sing cause this musical to stand out from some of the more traditional movie musicals where actors just randomly burst into song at different points.  It also allows the live vocals to be the dictator of success for this picture and it is what makes this film have some monumental moments of pure magic.

Musicals often have scenes that delve into darker material, but usually the majority of the production tends to lean towards merriment and cheer.  Les Miserables has always stood out as a musical that digs deep into the world of poverty and the uprising of the proletariat, while portraying brutality and violence. During a time when the economy is still a major issue and many feel the struggle while corporations remain rich and protected, Les Miserables offers something significant to the modern audience despite being set in the early 1800s.  The story of the fall, redemption, guilt, and sacrifice of Jean Valjean (played by Hugh Jackman) contains more depth than your typical large scale musical.  Director Tom Hopper crafts a film that has settings and performances that properly enhance the classic story that was first written in novel form by Victor Hugo.

The advantage of film is the ability to shoot in several locations, have extravagant sets, and have special effects enhance the action sequences.  Les Miserables has some wonderful and beautiful settings.  The opening scene immediately transports you into the world as you see several prisoners pull in the large ship, and the scene holds a magnificence that would never be able to be properly captured on stage.  The special effects are strong throughout most of the film and every setting helps to properly set the mood.  Here is the major problem, despite the grand and marvelous settings, Hopper insists on having super close ups of the performers.  Almost 85% of the film seems to consist of a shot of the face of the singer (I'll admit I randomly chose a high percentage, because it helps make my point).  I'm sure there was a purpose and maybe it was designed to make things seem more intimate, but I usually just found myself wishing I could see more on the screen and not be so aware of who brushed and flossed the best.

In most films, you're used to being able to connect to the protagonists.  This isn't necessarily the same requirement with musicals.  Les Miserables has a large cast, and there were times that characters weren't fully developed.  This is only a minor quibble directed to a few specific characters, such as Enjolras (played by Aaron Tveit) who I felt didn't get a proper climax due to insignificant screen time.

The strength of this film rests on the spectacular performances.  The main characters have such powerful presence that quickly makes up for my small problem with an underdeveloped revolutionary leader.  I've never thought much of Hugh Jackman, but this was his major breakout film that has nothing to do with mutant powers.  He has a history in theatre, and his ability shines with several heart stirring performances.  Anne Hathaway as Fantine nails her big "I Dreamed a Dream", and though her part is small, her character's spirit sticks with you the entire film.  I can understand why both received their Academy Awards nominations, and they were well deserved.

The performance that I really thought was the real gem was Samantha Barks as Eponine, who was making her film debut.  I love the song "On My Own", and Barks sung it with the passion and power that I always imagined it was meant to be performed.  It was riveting.  Barks was magnificent in every scene, which is impressive considering she is new to this medium.  I'd go as far as to claim she deserved the Supporting Actress nomination, but with her obvious talent, her day will come soon.

The great performances were true magic, but there were some weaker showings.  Russell Crowe, playing Javert, did have some great moments, but as a whole, his voice didn't have the strength of his peers.  The weakness was exposed when he was up against a powerhouse like Jackman.  Amanda Seyfried was miscast as Cosette as her emotional moments never really contained the right energy to connect, and her moments of sorrow seemed closer to just having the sniffles.  Seyfried is a great talent, but I felt she may have been better used in a smaller role (maybe holding the boom mic?  I'm just kidding).

I was pleasantly surprised by both Helen Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who were fantastic as the swindling innkeepers, the Thenardiers.  Both have proven in the past they have excellent comic talents, but I wasn't sure if they would fit in a musical.  They both delivered their fun songs with the right amount of energy and humour.  They offered up the right dose of comic relief at the necessary moments.

I started this review by stating that theatre and cinema are two different worlds.  But the best film musicals are able to make those two worlds converge.  Les Miserables is able to use the big effects and awe inspiring locations allowed in cinema while also capturing the charm and grandeur of theatre.  It is one of the best balances seen in cinema since the golden age of film musicals from so many decades ago.

Les Miserables is an Oscar nominated film, and the reason why I am reviewing it.  The question is if this film deserves its nomination and does it have a real chance at the golden statuette.  I see the success of Les Miserables similar to Life of Pi.  Two pictures that tackled difficult to film source material, and created splendid movies.  I don't think either are the best of 2012, but they both deserve acknowledgement for their major achievements.  Life of Pi is a visual masterpiece that effectively incorporated 3D into the storytelling, and Les Miserables took on the challenge of live vocals to create an inspirational and moving musical experience.  It is their successful accomplishment of great challenges that make them worthy of the nominations.  Les Miserables is a bona fide success.

The Short and Sweet:  A great visual adaption of a classic musical and story that contains some truly unforgettable performances by exceptional talents.

Rating:  3.75 out of 5 stars