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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Les Miserables Movie Review - A Timeless Piece of Musical Cinema




In Les Miserables, we join Jean Valjean, who after serving his 19 year service in prison is now trying to rebuild his life after a kind gesture from an understanding bishop despite attempts at stealing silver from him. He then seeks redemption by taking on the responsibility of caring for a child from which her dying mother, Fantine, entrusted to him. All this in raw musical form.

One thing you need to know about this movie going in is that its basically a musical in cinema form based on the classic musical, Les Miserables. It features the same story elements with a few minor modifications here and there as well as a new song made by the original composers specifically for the purposes of the movie. Another twist to this movie as it is probably the first of its kind, as far as I'm concerned, to record the voices and performances live on set. Traditional musicals record the songs before shooting. Did it work well? It sure did.

Better add this to the numerous faces of Hugh Jackman.

The opening scene features and underwater shot. It was quiet and the sound was muffled. A few seconds in, the camera moves upward, above the water revealing the CG spectacle of the prisoners, including Valjean pulling a huge boat while the sweeping and familiar Prologue theme of Les Miserables plays in the background. It was a great way to start the movie since it was very inviting to fans and probably non-Les Mis fans alike. Then they started singing. At first it sounded a little bizzarre. You have this gritty and chaotic background, with water crashing everywhere and filthy men pulling this towering boat while Javert looks from afar, while they were singing. It takes a good 15 or so minutes to get used to it after which you become totally enraptured by the movie.

There is a certain charm in Tom Hooper movies like The King's Speech. He likes very unconventional framing and camera movements in his movies that sometimes take me out a bit. In Les Mis he prefers the camera right in the face of the actors as they sing with some truly bizzarre but interesting angles here and there. And in some cases he frames characters where you can barely see them with a wall filling the rest of the frame. But there were moments were the swooping camera movements and angles were just jaw dropping. For example in Javert's performance of stars, I just loved the wide angle look from above as he walks at the edge of a building or as Valjean delivers his soliloquy. As he was transforming into a changed man, we see him looking in the distance at the edge of a cliff and the camera just zooms out as the paper he tore flutters in the wind. The camera then reveals a feather in the sky and swoops down to reveal Javert riding for town. But like I said, I found the cinematography a little bothering at times but it was unique and fresh. There was stark contrast between one sequence from the next. Some felt jarring and unnatural but I didn't mind it that much. Especially because of the acting.

The visuals, for the most part, were great.

The performances in this movie were outstanding. I love movies that don't cut too much in dialogue and this movie hits the right notes in that aspect (no pun intended). Numerous times during the defining songs of the characters, the camera was simply right in their face without cuts or camera tricks. It was simply 3-4 minutes of in-your-face, one angle, honest singing and acting. It had this visceral and raw kind of feel and I really loved that about Les Mis. There were actually some points where you see the shadow of the camera on the characters' faces (Since I make videos of my own I am hyperaware of this stuff) which in itself wasn't a problem because the performances were stellar.


Anne breaking away from the delicate Princess Diary image.

Which brings me to Russel Crowe's performance of Javert. I would like people to listen to other people say that Crowe was bad at his part or he didn't do it justice. I did. But during the movie, I enjoyed his performances. He wasn't as bad as people make him out to be. You can see in his acting that he was trying and it showed. He played a different kind of Javert. A calmed and contained Javert which compliments well with Jackman's explosive performance of Valjean. They in a way theatrically canceled each other out which gives another layer to their strange relationship. Well, he wasn't consistent obviously, but I don't think he was the weakest of the actors. But it is clear who the strongest was: Anne Hathaway. Through all her parts, I was in a state of trance. I felt my eyes drying up as they were glued on screen and at certain parts it would just well up because of how beautiful and sad her parts were. Hathaway stole the show that's for sure.


This was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the movie.

But this gave a kind of unneveness to the performances but still all of them, I thought, were great. One thing I need to mention is Eddie Redmayne's Marius and Samantha Barks' Eponine. Eddie's rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables is amazing. He brought a certain brand of singing and acting to the table which keeps on playing in my head over and over even after the movie. Sam Barks' Eponine though was perfect. There is a reason she is highly regarded in theatre because of her Eponine role in the musical. I'm glad they got her on board. Last thing I want to mention about the songs is "Suddenly" which was the new song made by the original composers of Les Mis. It was a welcome addition to the track list and I am very excited as to how the song will be used going forward.

I can talk about the other actors but it would make for a very long read. In a nutshell, though there performances were not on par with each other, they were all great which is quite a relief for me who really looked forward to this movie.

Aside from some directing and cinematography gripes and unnevenness of the actor's performances, Les Miserables is an undeniable good time and I see this movie being as timeless as the musical and book are. Truly a timeless piece of musical cinema.

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