Wednesday, February 6, 2013

LifestyleBohol * You Have the Right to Remain Miserable: A Review of the musical film, Les Misérables

The iconic woodcut image of Cosette, which represents Les Misérables, is given a whole new life through this poster.

This review article is an improved and slightly longer version of the one I wrote for the February 3rd, 2013 issue of LifestyleBohol.  Why longer?  Because I included a few more things that the paper didn't have enough room for.

Enjoy reading!

So I’ve been asked to do a review of the film, Les Misérables, for today’s issue and I must say I’ve resisted the urge to write one right after seeing the film for the first time in the cinema.  I told myself, “After I see it a second time, I’ll speak my mind.”  Well, I’ve now seen it five times and still haven’t come up with one.  I’ve exhausted every possible excuse I could use on myself so I decided against using any of them in response to the editor when she texted me asking me for my review.  It’s high time, I guess.  And who better to read it than the people of Bohol, right?

Before I give you my review, you must note my appreciation isn’t limited to films.  I’m quite an aficionado when it comes to art and its many forms and I’m going to dissect Les Misérables for the musical film that it is and not merely as a regular cinema flick that makes up 95% of the things shown on HBO and Star Movies.  Also, you must not read this piece the same way you read a review by Rotten Tomatoes because I personally don’t see eye-to-eye with that website and I don’t know why people still trust them as a film critiquing institution when they clearly have a difficulty recognizing art even when it’s staring them in the eye.  However, I have to say this is one of the few instances when my opinion actually matches theirs to a surprisingly broad degree.

Come and let me take you for a review ride!

First of all, you have to understand that Tom Hooper’s most recent work isn’t an ordinary film and isn’t an ordinary musical either.  You can’t judge it based on a set of criteria you have for either art form.  This belongs in a completely different league.  If you only love films but not musicals, you can’t appreciate it.  The same could be said if you only love musicals performed on a theatre stage but not films.

For those of you that don’t know, here’s a little backstory of how the film came to be:  Les Misérables is a novel written by the French author Victor Hugo, first published in 1862.  It has seen so many adaptations.  Films, plays and television miniseries have been produced over the last century.  Of these, the most famous and enduring take on the story is the sung-through musical by French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricists Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, which has been improved several times and translated to at least 13 languages from its original conception in French.  By the way, by “sung-though,” I mean absolutely everything in the original musical was sung and there were no spoken lines.  The novel’s most recent adaptation is obviously the one we’re talking about—not an original take on the text by Hugo but an adaptation of the musical.  It’s basically an adaptation of an adaptation.  If you think I used the word “adaptation” too many times in this paragraph, you may be right but it still doesn’t beat how many of them actually exist.

To start, I wish to laude the actors, the producers and the director involved in the film.  This project was indubitably brave.  They did something that has never been successfully done in the history of film making.  Unlike every other musical film made before it, where the singing was pre-recorded in a studio, they went against the norm and began a revolution where the songs were recorded in the very moments they were being filmed as opposed to lip-synching to playback tracks of their own voices.  That way, the film was very much like an actual stage performance.  Every raw emotion emanating from them, manifested by their singing voices, was captured and ultimately immortalized.

Let me add that this brave feat was also the most practical course of action for the film because, unlike most musicals where most of the dialog is normally spoken and they just break into song on certain significant moments, the original material was sung-through so if they had done it the regular way and made pre-recordings, they would well have pre-recorded everything.  Moreover, you may ask why there were actual spoken lines in the film when I specifically said everything in the original musical was sung.  This was because the screenwriters had to compromise a little bit to add emotion to certain lines used in specific moments.  A good example was the instant right before Fantine was thrown out of the factory, when she called out to the mayor and exclaimed, “Please, monsieur, I have a child.”  That line was absent from the musical but it added a tinge of realism to the film; that’s why they added it and made it a spoken line rather than sung.

Avid fans of the stage musical may remark that the singing was off-key in a lot of instances and that they differed heavily from how things went about on stage.  True.  Very true.  It’s an established fact that the artistic material they were dealing with in the making of the film was made for the stage so without a shadow of a doubt, the theatre is its true home.  With that said, however, film-making is an entirely different avenue where artists are afforded certain liberties that do not exist in a theatre—as much as there are liberties afforded by theatre that could never be matched by film-making.

Let’s imagine parallel scenarios.  The actor playing Jean Valjean on stage couldn’t possibly be allowed to shed as many tears as Hugh Jackman did while singing his soliloquy, “What Have I Done.”  Too many tears will cause fluids to accumulate in the throat and that is a sure way to momentarily diminish vocal quality—which is a huge NO-NO in musical theatre.  Also, while a stage performance would be very aurally pleasing, an everyday person—who doesn’t appreciate theatre as much as real theatre patrons—would never be able to derive any emotion from it simply by listening to clear and crisp lyrics.  That was achieved in the film but they had to compromise on enunciation and voice quality because it was something that required actual tears dripping out of the actor’s face, which was to be filmed at a very close angle.  You can’t say Hugh was bad just because of that.  Are you kidding me?  He was great!

You must remember that musical films are generally made so the material in the musicals may be available to everyone—to the masses, the people who don’t actually have P3,000 to spend to see it in a live theatre, the people who don’t understand theatre in the first place.  Think about it.

Let’s go back to Hugh Jackman.  The only less-than-positive sentiment I have about his portrayal was when he sang the aria, “Bring Him Home,” his prayer for the sleeping Marius.  I’m so used to it being performed beginning with gentle notes, with strength fluctuating from gentle to strong to gentle to strong to gentle as the song goes on.  Colm Wilkinson set the standard for this.  Go check out his performance on YouTube if you want to know what I mean.  Hugh, on the other hand, began with solid notes and retained the same quality throughout the entire song.  That made it really awkward for me but it was forgiveable.

This is the perfect moment, I believe, to mention how much I loved the man who played the Bishop of Digne—who fed Jean Valjean, allowed him to stay in his home for the night and even gave him silver the day after so he may have a chance to renew his life in the way of God.  For the information of those who don’t know, that man is no other than Colm Wilkinson, the standard-setter I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  He was the original Jean Valjean in the first English language production of Les Misérables in London’s West End way back in 1985.  And while we’re on this subject, I was really happy to see him in place of Eponine at the end of the film to greet Jean Valjean’s soul.

Alright, now it’s time to revel in the fact that Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine was an absolute marvel.  I have never encountered anybody who disagrees with me in this.  She perfectly pulled off her transition from being a humble factory worker to being a sacrificing, loving mother to being a prostitute to being a dying hospital patient.  I only have positive words for her interpretation of the character.  It was impeccable!  I blame her for my first continuous flow of tears while in the cinema.  I mean, come on!  Who can hold back from shedding a few good drops when Anne sang Fantine’s most famous aria, “I Dreamed a Dream”?  To say it was heart-wrenching would be an understatement.

I really appreciate how the movie included a scene where she sold her teeth.  It was a key point in the book which really made me sob and howl loudly while reading it but it was completely absent from the stage musical.  Then again, it wouldn’t have been practical on stage.  See, this is another one of those film-production-afforded liberties I was talking about earlier.

After Fantine’s death, we are introduced to M. and Mme. Thenardier, the vile and corrupt innkeepers under whose care Cosette was entrusted.  They are, without a doubt, favorites in the musical.  They add a tinge of humor to what would otherwise be a very dark and depressing show.  While I like how the schemes of the couple were illustrated in the film, I wasn’t particularly as amused as I expected to be.  I guess that’s another musical-to-film reality we’re all going to have to deal with.  It wasn’t the perfect “Master of the House” performance I was readying myself to see for over a year but it was actually good in its own right.  I certainly wasn’t laughing my ass off but I bore witness to an interpretation of the characters that was a bit closer to their grim and dark personas than how the musical portrays them.  Honestly, I don’t have any other people in mind to play the couple but Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.  They’re veterans when it comes to dark humor in films.  It’s just a pity that Sacha didn’t get to sing his big solo number in the sewers.  Then again, it would have dragged the suspense out of Valjean rescuing the dying Marius if they’d persisted in inserting that song.

So right after Jean Valjean escapes with young Cosette—after that beautiful new song that the composers had written just for the musical, a song which I really, really loved, by the way—we are introduced to a different world.  From the filthy streets of that small town where our main character was the mayor, we are flung to Paris in 1832.  I was really happy to see the crumbling plaster model of the Elephant of the Bastille that Gavroche supposedly called home.  That boy, Daniel Huttlestone, who played the character, was really good, by the way.

A little later, we are introduced to the student revolutionaries who will eventually die in the June Rebellion—the most important characters being Enjolras, their leader, and Marius, the man who will eventually be Cosette’s husband.  Another notable character we see around this time is Eponine, the previously pampered daughter of the Thenardier couple who has now been reduced to a street waif thanks to poverty.  She is played by Samantha Barks, the same actress who played her in the 25th Anniversary concert special of the musical.  Interestingly, I was more drawn to her less-belty and more emotionally raw performance of the song, “On My Own” in the film.  I didn’t like her in that Anniversary special, to be honest, but in the film she was stunning.  Her eyes took me to places I know I had been before, as much as I’d like to deny it.  Who hasn’t been in her position at one point in life?  My only disappointment in the film regarding its take on Eponine wasn’t in Samantha’s performance but in the fact that they omitted a few lines from her songs—her aria, which I already mentioned, and “A Little Fall of Rain,” a duet she shares with Marius a short moment before her character dies.

Did I say Marius?  Oh, yeah, I most definitely did!  They were right to choose Eddie Redmayne for the part because while the vocal prowess of Aaron Tveit, who played Enjolras the revolutionary student leader, was stern and strong, Eddie’s was slightly more dreamy and relaxed, which made him sound convincingly in love.  Grown-up Cosette, on the other hand, played by Amanda Seyfried, whom some of us know from the musical film “Mamma Mia,” may not have been the best soprano in a line of many but she certainly convinced me of the sentiments she sang about.  Her voice had a warm and innocent tone that made me sympathetic to her character.  Whenever I see the stage musical, I’m always inclined to care only about Eponine and her unrequited love for Marius.  In the film, however, Eponine and Cosette shared my attention.

Anyway, let’s go back to Marius.  Near the end of the film, there is an aria that belongs to him.  It’s called “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which happens to be one of my favorite songs of the musical.  Eddie’s interpretation was absolutely brilliant!  It literally got me pulling my collar down in a helpless fit of noisy sobbing inside the cinema.  Most of the arias in the film were worth tears but this one just made me lose it completely!  I didn’t care that I was in there with other people.  His performance added a ton of weight to my already sunken heart that I ended up remembering the dear people in my own life that had passed away.  Such a moment, that was!

And now we come to the cherry on the sundae:  Russell Crowe.  So many people found his performance disappointing primarily because of his lack of vocal prowess compared to the rest of the cast.  I can’t blame them for saying such things.  One could even say that a random man playing a beggar among the rest of the film’s amazing and awesome ensemble could have done a better job at singing Javert’s parts than Russell.  As far as the film and the musical are concerned, Javert is the main antagonist and is regarded as a primary lead along with Jean Valjean.  And while it doesn’t take a musical genius to realize that he’s not cut out for show tunes, theatre patrons like me will rant about how deep the injustice was that he committed against his arias, “Stars” and the soliloquy “Javert’s Suicide.”

No matter how much I try to comfort myself with the idea that the producers must have had a justifiable reason for picking Russell to play the part, I still can’t seem to get over the fact that he just wasn’t right for it.  I didn’t feel a strong resentment towards Javert like I was supposed to.  I’m sorry, Russell Crowe is an amazing actor but he could have done so much better.  His conviction that the law, as coined by man with the guidance of God, is the basis of social order and must be obeyed regardless of the needs of humanity was supposed to be portrayed in his first aria, “Stars,” but all I thought about while watching and listening to him singing it was “What if he falls off that ledge?”  It just wasn’t right.

I know I mentioned something about the ensemble already but I believe it wasn’t enough.  They were really awesome and they deserve a long standing ovation.  They were the golden threads that allowed the musical to be sewn together.  If you’ve seen the musical, you might notice that the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” is originally placed differently from its turn in the film.  In the latter, it is sung when the revolutionaries start to rally people up—just moments before they build the barricades.  The presence of a full ensemble was really inspiring.  It gave the song more meaning to me than its original placement in the stage musical.  Come to think of it, all major musical numbers involving the voices of the people of the ensemble were simply breathtaking.  “One Day More,” my absolute favorite song from the musical, is another testament to that.

Over all, I give the film 4 out of 5 stars.  There are a lot of points for criticism but so much more that are deserving of high praises and long, deafening moments of applause.  I was certainly blown away, if that’s what you were looking to read.  More than that, hard-hearted friends of mine were even reduced to a teary pulp by the film’s sheer power.  Okay, I need to stop typing now.


Seen on Print: