Friday, 28 December 2012

Les Miserables (2012)

In commercial film, there's not a lot of creative wiggle room. Once a day's work has been committed to celluloid, changes cost amounts of money which are usually not spent. Cutting-floor redemption is possible, but generally speaking, films are eventually "completed" (or more accurately, locked in). The audience not liking this scene or that line might result in bad box office or poor reviews, but -- except in rare instances -- it would kill profits to keep re-shooting, re-cutting, and re-releasing until literally everyone was satisfied. Once a film is done, it's done.

Stage musicals aren't like that. The evolution your average musical undergoes in its journey from paper and piano to the Great White Way is Darwinian. Musicals are work-shopped, toured, translated, revised, recast, and reworked until, often, the final project in no way resembles the original. This fine-tuning can last long after a show opens. Broadway musicals are essentially engaged in a last-man-standing deathmatch. Hollywood blockbusters do a couple weeks, or at most a couple months, in theatres, then they go to DVD. But a musical can perish in under a week, or it can run for over two decades. That means that every facet of a successful, long-running live show has been calibrated for maximal audience enjoyment. Structurally speaking, Broadway musicals are perfect.

Someone working on Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) didn't get this, and it shows.

Yeah, Cosette, you're cold, we get it.

The plot of Les Miserables is convoluted, but I'll do my best. The convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), recently released from prison, breaks his parole to start a new life, pursued all the while by tough-on-crime cop Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean soon encounters the dying prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and agrees to look after her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who is being fostered with the wicked Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean quits his erstwhile mayoral post (Javert is hot on his trail anyway), collects Cosette, and starts a new life in Paris. Flash forward nine years: a group of students hanging out at the ABC cafe decide that the French revolution was pretty banging and that they want to have their own, so they pile up a bunch of furniture in the street and loudly espouse the forgotten ideals of the French republic. Unsurprisingly they are all shot, except Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is rescued by Valjean because the teenage Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has the hots for him (Marius, not Valjean). Cosette and Marius get married and Valjean, quite literally, crawls into a corner and dies. He then goes to heaven, where Fantine is waiting for him; for some reason her angelic visage still has awful hair.

My relationship to Les Mis is rather special. I first encountered the musical as a young teen; its combined bombastic optimism and cheerful willingness to wallow in its own filth appealed to 14-year-old me. I'm not talking about just being one of those annoying Musical Theatre Teenagers who "IS Eponine" and will break into a chorus of "On My Own"at the slightest provocation (although that was also the case). I'm talking fan art, fan fiction, and on one occasion, a sleepover where me and two of my closest friends reenacted the entire musical (dividing the parts between us, and using found-object costumes and props from my basement). I've grown out of this, I'm not a lunatic any more, but you should just understand that no one, no one, went into Les Miserables more prepared to love it than I did. (No, not even you). But when it finished...  you know, I just wasn't crazy about it.

Nothing says "lovelorn waif" like a waist smaller than your hair.
Don't get me wrong. Les Miserables has a lot going for it. First off, the acting is as good as you've heard. The highlight is Anne Hathaway doing her best Maria Falconetti impression:

Not bad.

Amanda Seyfried is also charming as Cosette: she has a delicate, endearingly reedy soprano, and comes off as innocent rather than oblivious (a stage hazard of the role). Bonus, Seyfried is almost thirty now and has largely aged out of looking like a startled goldfish.

You know damn well what I mean.
The camera spends long periods of time in close-up and extreme-close up on the characters as they suffer and die (as they almost all do): this could have been unbearable, but thankfully, it works. I don't think Hathaway's resemblance to the titular heroine of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was any accident, since that film debuted the face as a filmic event (eek, my film studies is showing). Every actor brings their A-game; the only major casting missteps are Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems curiously disinterested in the proceedings and spends his scenes drifting in and out of a bad French accent, and Eddie Redmayne, who has all the charisma and good looks of a used Kleenex.

Other good things: the music is beautiful and beautifully rendered. The sets (although uneven) are, at their best, breathtaking. The costumes are excellent -- Cosette's giant Parisian Socialite Barbie dresses are positively drool-worthy. There are many allusions to Victor Hugo's original text that will be appreciated by book geeks like me. And so on.

Are you not entertained?
Unfortunately, whoever handled the cuts and changes to the original book (I don't care if you tell me it was Claude-Michel Schonberg himself) had a ham fist and a tin ear. You cannot slice two verses, a bridge and a coda from a song and expect the remaining six lines to retain their emotional impact. That is not how music works. But this mistake is made over and over in Les Miserables -- songs are rarely cut entirely, but are far too frequently pared down to a single verse and chorus. At times -- such as when Fantine attacks a customer basically apropos of nothing -- it's confusing. The only reason I can imagine for chopping so much content is to pare running time for film goers unaccustomed to Broadway's bladder-punishing lengths. If that's the case, the addition of the terrible and interminable "Suddenly" is an unforgivable grab for the "Best Song" Oscar. Also, the misguided idea that longer means better appears to be in vogue in cinema right now (see: The Hobbit), so Hooper should just have gone for it. Les Miserables was never meant for minimalism.

Similarly, lines are often rewritten and rearranged, sometimes to accommodate plot changes, and sometimes for no discernible reason; but lyrics cannot be merely exposition, they must also be poetry. Much has been made of Hooper's decision to allow the musical to remain a sung-through, but I would have preferred expository lines of dialogue over the spectacle of poor Samantha Barks trying to find the poetry in "still pretending to be poor? Well, I know you're really rich!" (the final word never quite finding anything to rhyme with). Similarly, the students of the ABC cafe now refer to the "barricade" before said barricade physically exists: perhaps Hooper meant us to take it as a metaphor? Many of the actors take to acting extra-hard between their sung lines; gasping, panting, growling, sobbing, exclaiming "god!" or "no!", and so on. Unfortunately, this doesn't really work in a musical, the entire point of which is to reflect the excesses of a character's emotions entirely through song; vocal realism of the "I'm breathing-really-hard-because-I'm-so-upset" variety could, and should, have been sublimated into music.

"I told you you couldn't stay awake through the 10:30 showing."
A curious bowdlerization is evident in some of the lyrical omissions and changes: the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson: hooray!) has now "saved" Valjean's soul, rather than "bought" it (the implications of the latter, presumably, being too ambiguous). The final verse of "The Bargain", in which the Thenardiers oh-so-delicately suggest that Valjean's interest in Cosette may be that of a pimp or worse, is dropped. The grim "Dog Eat Dog" is omitted entirely. It seems strange to me that a movie so apparently dedicated to visual squalor would shy from lyrical ugliness.

Basically, I liked Les Miserables. It was generally well-executed, and where it wasn't well-executed, it was at least well-intentioned. Still, I don't think I'll go see it again. When I go see a musical, I want to see a musical, not bizarro Broadway Hit Clips. Your local high school will give you more bang (and more songs) for your buck.

Careful with that candle, Helena.
SCENE STEALER: Hmm, who haven't I mentioned yet? Helena Bonham Carter's pretty good as Madame Thenardier: as sassy and brassy as the character demands, yet also surprisingly sexy and sympathetic. I wish she'd brought Johnny Depp with her to take over for the sleepwalking Baron Cohen.

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