Tuesday, December 25, 2012

'Les Miserables' Registers in Mostly Lower Keys


first thing I tweeted after seeing “Les Misérables” was that I felt like I'd been punched in the gut about 24,601 times.

If you're at all familiar with the score, there's a joke in there. It also speaks to the heft of such a dramatic piece. This is a heavy, harrowing story. Most of that heft, however, doesn't come from the music – instead, it's from the look and feel of the movie and the respect paid to the original novel.

In this “Les Misérables,” the sum of its parts is greater than its individual pieces. The film opens today in Canada, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain and the United States. It rolls out across other parts of the world through 30 March 2013(http://www.bit.ly/MQeQkL; see video above).

First, a disclaimer: I'm probably not the typical audience member. I didn't see “Les Misérables” a couple of times, bought one cast recording, and fumbled through pronouncing the title. In the past 20 years, I've seen the show in five states – two national tours, one regional production, the Broadway revival and three school-edition performances. Let's just say that if rounded up, the number of performances would be closer to 100 than 10.

Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) try to find happiness in spite of forces that threaten it. Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Still, I don't consider myself a “Les Misérables” purist. The numerous changes from stage to screen – recitative turned into dialogue, rearrangement of songs, slashing of verses, inclusion of small details directly from the novel – make the film different enough to be engaging but similar enough to be familiar.

Because of these changes, the film almost feels like a separate adaptation of the novel that uses the 1980s mega-musical as a reference point, rather than something that can be lumped in with “Chicago,” “Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” as just another film version of a musical theater hit.

Victor Hugo's 1862 novel – nicknamed "The Brick" in fan circles for its density – chronicles the life, death and redemption of convict Jean Valjean, his pursuit by Inspector Javert and his adoption of the orphan Cosette. Along the way there's Fantine, Cosette's impoverished mother; Marius, the student Cosette falls in love with; Eponine, the doomed waif in love with Marius, and Enjolras, the leader of an 1832 insurrection that's often mistaken for the French Revolution.

It's a lot to pack into one movie, let alone more than a dozen movies since the silent era, let alone one musical. Yet in 1985, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyricist Herbert Kretzmer (adapting Alain Boublil's French lyrics) and producer Cameron Mackintosh successfully brought this weighty tome to the London stage, where it continues to run.

The Broadway production ran from 1987 to 2003, with a revival from 2006 to 2008. For an oldster fan like me who has a “Les Miz” program advertising a 1993 film release, it's surreal that after years of false starts, “Les Miz” movie posters are now ubiquitous.

As has been tirelessly mentioned in “Les Misérables” promotional pieces, director Tom Hooper chose to have the actors sing live on set. (Viewers will be treated to lots of wobbly chins, popping veins and other marks of vocal authenticity.) It's a commendable choice, and most of the time it works. The rest of the time Russell Crowe is on screen.

Crowe's Javert isn't a disaster – as some fans had predicted – but he's the most blatant example of big-name casting in favor of appropriate talent for the role. He has a rather pleasant voice, but he's concentrating so hard on singing well that everything else gets a bit lost. It's telling that his strongest scene is a violent confrontation with Valjean where shouting on key is pretty much all that's vocally required of both RC and Hugh Jackman.

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman aren't in their natural element singing the lines of Javert and Valjean.

Most everyone else in “Les Misérables” fares better, including the shrink-rayed Anne Hathaway (Fantine). She turns "I Dreamed a Dream" into a plaintive monologue from a woman who's hit rock bottom, successfully erasing all memories of anyone who went viral after impressing Simon Cowell.

The closeups during this song are just a taste of what's to come, since TH’s not shy about showing bodily fluids, simulated or otherwise. (Sensitive to blood, snot, sewer runoff or 1830s beggar-style sores? Don't sit too close.)

Though AH and HJ (a slightly vocally strained but intense Jean Valjean) have received a great deal of press, the surprise breakout in “Les Misérables” is actually Eddie Redmayne (Marius), the freckly part-time Burberry model and Laurence Olivier and Tony Award-winner (“Red”).

ER made his career in film and straight plays, but after this full-voiced, incredibly thoughtful performance, he should become the toast of London's West End. His chemistry with Amanda Seyfried's luminous Cosette (now in her second movie musical role as a doe-eyed, lovestruck ingenue – remember “Mamma Mia”?) brings much-needed warmth. His scenes with Enjolras (steely-jawed Broadway veteran Aaron Tveit) and rebel buddies are passionate as well as playful.

Down-on-her-luck Fantine (Anne Hathaway) finds a friend in Jean (Hugh Jackman).

Anyone who buys a ticket to this “Les Misérables” and whose happiness is riding on his or her memories of beautiful, musical theater-belting and stage dirt, is going to be disappointed.

Instead, think of “Les Misérables” as another excellent production of the musical and enjoy the ride.

"Les Misérables" is rated PG-13. Visit http://www.universalpicturesawards.com/#/lesmis to learn more about the film.

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