Review by The Isolated Moviegoer:
Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is a superb take on the movie musical, blending classic and progressive elements into high-class entertainment. Succeeding as an entry point for novices, yet packing enough freshness for devotees of its theatrical source material, it’s an artsy, engaging film, made all the more riveting for its timeless and timely tale of class warfare.
From the harrowing opening sequence of early 19th century French criminals manually hauling a ship into port, Hooper establishes a grisly epic tone that’s given further gravitas by the film’s exceptional music. The latter asset will come as no surprise to the legions of fans who know the songs by heart, but for the uninitiated, the tunes live up to the hype. Still, like the best stage directors, Hooper isn’t content to merely rehash these standards. Employing film’s countless technical edges over live performance, the director breathes vibrant cinematic life into each scene. In capturing the story’s central allure, however, he takes a daring traditional path, and the gamble proves to be a smart move.
Following ex-con Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) decades-long struggle to lead an honest life while being pursued by the relentless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Hooper has his cast perform their numbers on camera as opposed to synching up with pre-recorded tracks. This approach gives the lyrics (which don’t always rhyme) and singing (which isn’t always on beat) a more authentic, emotional feel. For a cast in which the stars aren’t foremost known for their vocals, the style becomes an extension of their characters, nearly all of whom make a lasting impression.
Most ably wielding this power is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a factory worker who turns to prostitution to provide for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen). A shadow of her former self, Fantine pours out her laments in early highlight “I Dreamed A Dream,” captured with gut-wrenching rawness in a single sustained shot. Operating on a slightly different tonal level, though with near equal aplomb, are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as a sleazy innkeeper and his wife. Bringing all the comedic appeal that their respective histories suggest, the pair provide welcome laughs within Hooper’s unwavering professional parameters and serve as both foils and unlikely threats to the film’s central dramas. (That such disparate characters work so well within the same film is perhaps the film’s greatest accomplishment.)
Despite all the perks this musical approach brings to Les Miserables, it also has its inherent downsides. Occasionally, the lack of polished Broadway professionalism fails to convey the nuances of certain songs, emphasizing an overall emotion as opposed to specific phrases and details. Those that suffer most, unfortunately, are the film’s leads. With each of their star-expanding numbers, the naturalism gradually dulls Jackman’s and Crowe’s performances to merely serviceable. Valjean’s quest for justice is never doubted, just as Javert’s dedication to the law keeps his target in constant danger, but outside of a few choice moments, they each become little more than identifiable cogs in the true headliner: the people’s revolution.
The music and filmmaking are so captivating, however, that the story progresses with energy to spare. As the antagonists take to their destined sides, the societal battle between the Haves and the Have Nots transforms the film into a gripping action adventure. Fortified by instant-classic songs (arguably the film’s best) leading up to, during, and after the fight, the moral ambitions of common folk are conveyed with notable passion. Sneaking his camera behind conflict lines, Hooper gets down in the mud with the troops and gives the struggle multiple empathetic faces, including Valjean fulfilling his God-sworn commitment alongside a new generation of do-gooders. At last finding his place among the people, the older man’s efforts and inspiration bring the story full circle, and as the pieces to a satisfying end fall magnificently into place, the old tale reaches stirring new heights.
Hitting marks both grand and intimate while never losing its musical focus, Les Miserables prevails throughout. A jolt to a genre in need of a boost, Hooper’s vision is a reminder that, with the right person behind the camera, musicals are capable of providing the highest form of cinematic pleasure.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Les Miserables is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.
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