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"LES MISÉRABLES"
(2012) (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Musical: The lives of a 19th century prisoner who jumped parole and started his life anew, and the police officer determined to find and recapture him repeatedly intersect over the years leading up to the French Revolution.
PLOT:
It's 1815 and Jean Valjean (HUGH JACKMAN) is a French prisoner who, after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister's family, is released on parole by the stern policeman, Javert (RUSSELL CROWE). Unable to find a job, he steals silver from a bishop who gives Jean the gift of not turning him in to the police. With a new lease on life, Jean breaks his parole and disappears.

Eight years later, Jean has reinvented himself under a pseudonym and now owns a factory in a small town of which he is also the mayor. Much to his surprise, Javert shows up for his new police assignment there, but doesn't recognize the former prisoner he so desperately wants to recapture. He is finally alerted to Jean's presence, however, when the mayor rescues a former factory worker of his turned reluctant prostitute, Fantine (ANNE HATHAWAY), and promises to find and care for that woman's young daughter, Cosette (ISABELLE ALLEN).

He eventually finds her under the less than gracious care of two innkeepers, the Thenardiers (HELENA BONHAM CARTER and SACHA BARON COHEN), who rob their customers blind when not doting after their own daughter, Eponine, while treating Cosette poorly. True to his word, Jean buys the girl from them and goes on his way.

Ten years later, Cosette (AMANDA SEYFRIED) has grown up into a young woman who's drawn the eye of Marius (EDDIE REDMAYNE), a young revolutionary who, along with his comrades, is hoping to overthrow the government. As that happens, the now grown-up Eponine (SAMANTHA BARKS) secretly pines for him, realizing all too well that Cosette has won his heart.

With the revolution ready to play out, Jean keeps both his and Fantine's past secret from Cosette, all while hoping to keep her safe and having to deal with Javert who simply won't stop until he catches his man.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
While I had no intention of doing anything in the theater, I ended up minoring (and nearly double-majoring) in that field in college. And that was due to already taking a bunch of playwriting/scripting courses from a professor with a proven track record of having his students make it big in Hollywood. Accordingly, I read, saw and was involved in a variety of plays from Shakespeare to more traditional dramas, comedies and musicals.

But it wasn't until post-graduation that I first encountered a production that was something of a hybrid between a stage musical and an opera. And that was when my wife first introduced me to the musical stage version of "Les Misérables." Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name, the performance featured characters who sang nearly all of the "dialogue," including in various powerful numbers such as "I Dreamed a Dream," "Do You Hear the People Sing" and "Master of the House."

Since it first graced the stage in 1980, the musical has reportedly been viewed by more than 60 million people worldwide. Considering that, it's shocking that it's taken this long for a movie adaptation to be made from it. After all, non-musical versions of Hugo's work have hit the screen a fair number of times (most recently in the 1998 offering starring Liam Neeson), while traditional musicals have returned to some of their heyday popularity following Disney reinvigorating the format with its animated musicals and then "Chicago" proving that such films could be both financial and critical hits.

To be fair, Alan Parker ("The Commitments," "Evita") reportedly tried to bring the musical to the screen back in the late 1980s, but those plans fell through. Regardless of that history, we now finally have a movie version of the musical and diehard fans of the work could very well be split on the results. And that's because the film is a decidedly different beast. Yes, all of the familiar and beloved numbers are present and the storyline remains intact.

Three decisions by director Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech"), however, shake things up a bit. The first is mainly casting Hollywood rather than traditional Broadway talent in the lead roles. While that is more likely to bring in viewers interested in seeing how the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway perform in the roles, they're not exactly and certainly not collectively considered Broadway caliber (yes, Jackman has performed there, but you wouldn't expect him and his co-stars to headline this on the Great White Way).

Then there's the fact that, for the first time ever (according to those involved), the performers' singing was recorded live on the set during the filming. The usual procedure is for them to record the numbers in a studio and then lip synch to that during the actual filming. All of which means the acting is, for the most part, already pre-decided months before the shooting of the scenes. Finally, while people are used to seeing the musical from a fair to nosebleed distance away, Hooper has the camera right in the faces of the performers, often in fairly unsteady close-up.

The result of all of that is a decidedly different version of the songs and thus the overall production. That's most noted in the new emotional intensity of many of them, something the stage version could never dream of achieving. For instance, during Anne Hathaway's version of "I Dreamed a Dream," her voice often breaks from the raw emotion that her character (and thus she, the actress) is experiencing at that time. I found such moments extremely powerful, especially during the bigger and better known numbers (and I wasn't alone as many jaded fellow reviewers were audibly sniffing away tears from Hathaway's performance).

And with just that number, the talented actress should earn herself a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Jackman has an outside shot seeing his own for performing the lead role, but viewers will likely be split over Crowe. While he's performed with a number of bands over the years, he isn't anyone's default choice of tackling a Broadway musical with all of the necessary vocal nuances and range, etc. I found his singing far from perfect (to be fair, he's better than I could ever imagine doing the same), but that actually worked for me as that's how I'd view his policeman character as a singer -- uncomfortable and not great, but doing it because that's what duty calls for).

Samantha Barks is perfect as Eponine (no surprise as she's played her on stage), but Amanda Seyfried and her vibrato just didn't work for me in the Cosette role (which was always one of the weakest in the stage play). Others range from decent to stellar, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter having fun singing and playing over the top as the opportunistic innkeepers (they do an entertaining rendition of "Master of the House").

Since it pretty much keeps in line with the stage production, the film suffers somewhat in the second act with some fairly blasé numbers, and the whole young love plotline (between Cosette and Eddie Redmayne's young revolutionary) again comes off as sappy and certainly too quick to develop. But then the big numbers kick in and all of the lesser material is forgiven and forgotten.

Overall, I liked the film, but its various standout performances and production numbers end up overshadowing the overall offering. While I had earlier predicted the movie would win Best Picture before ever seeing it (solely from remembrances of seeing the stage version and then watching the powerful first trailer), I'm not so sure that will now be the case. Good but not great, "Les Misérables" rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed November 27, 2012 / Posted December 25, 2012


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