REVIEW: Les Miserables Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe. Directed by Tom Hooper. M.
Musicals are essentially the same as any other cinematic genre in that success depends on an effective combination of story, performance, direction and production.
The notable and obvious difference is characters often sing rather than speak.
Musicals are one of two types: those which have spoken dialogue but characters break out into song frequently, and those which are practically entirely sung. Either might include dancing.
The former includes the likes of: Mamma Mia!, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, Hair, Oliver!, Mary Poppins, The King and I and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Examples of the latter are: Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chicago, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables.
In the latter the score (music, lyrics) and book (or libretto) must engage and enhance the story, provide characterisation and develop emotional depth.
The movie Les Miserables is based on the stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel by Claude-Michel Schonberg (music) and Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (lyrics), with subsequent English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer.
Les Miserables is one of the most successful stage musicals, with only Phantom of the Opera and Cats having more Broadway stage performances - and all three having coincided for more than a decade.
Whereas Phantom focused on a love triangle, Les Miserables is multilayered, albeit fragmented - the story anchored by the relentless efforts of police inspector Javert to capture Jean Valjean, a thief imprisoned for stealing bread and an ex-convict who broke his parole.
The first act is set in 1813 when prisoner Valjean was guarded by Javert, and in 1823 when Javert comes to suspect that a town's mayor and factory owner is Valjean with a different name.
At the same time Valjean becomes guardian to a little girl named Cosette, the daughter of Fantine, a woman fired from his factory and forced to become a prostitute.
The second act fast-forwards to 1832, introduces a romance between Cosette and Marius, who becomes part of a student rebellion, while Javert's pursuit of Valjean finally resolves itself.
To use a sports analogy, this movie adaptation turns these two acts into a game of two halves. The first half wallows in suffering and melodrama, with director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) armed with a trowel to lay the anguish and angst on thick and heavy to reflect the film's title.
Hooper is also overly fond of the close-up - songs sung with in-your-face intensity - and the film's first hour struggles for momentum with musical soliloquies too overwrought to be captivating or moving, including Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream (the song Susan Boyle sang on TV's Britain's Got Talent).
But the introduction, for light relief, of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as thieving innkeepers in the song Master of the House injects much-needed vitality and proves to be a turning point from which the movie gets better and better, achieving a lifeforce and emotional resonance.
The song One Day More is a superb interweaving of several perspectives while the stirring anthem of the rebels, Do You Hear the People Sing?, will have you ready to join them at the barricades. All the singing was shot live by Hooper, with orchestration added later, rather than the usual lip-syncing to pre-recorded songs. The cast is commendable, including a haggard Hathaway as the tortured Fantine (Hathaway not only sang live but had her hair cut while performing), Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as Marius and Cosette, and, in her film debut, Samantha Banks as Eponine, a student in love with Marius.
In opposing lead roles are Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert. Jackman's singing-acting prowess impresses and his Valjean will bring a tear or two to some eyes at the end.
Yet Crowe, perhaps surprisingly, is just as effective as counterpoint. He sings with a restraint that makes the best use of his voice and suits the moody gravitas he brings to his obsessed Javert, which gives the story some genuine dramatic power.
Accents are occasionally mixed, with French revolutionary boy Gavroche (David Huddlestone) sounding distinctly Cockney.
Production - artistic design, costumes, sets, makeup, cinematography, film editing and sound - is superb. Together with the cast, they, more than the music itself, lift this film adaptation.
One new song has been written by Schonberg for the film, performed by Jackman and called Suddenly, most likely an effort to achieve a best song Oscar nomination, which it did while being forgettable.
Les Miserables has also won seven other Oscar nominations, including ones for best picture, actor (Jackman) and supporting actress (Hathaway).
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