Saturday, 9 February 2013

The Song is You; Considering Les Misérables

So…Les Mis

Remember in that unconscionably long piece on Zero Dark Thirty when I mentioned those films that are fine to good (or even better) but which I have exactly zero inclination to write about? This year seems to have most of those than usual, and not because of any fault of the film – at least not explicitly. Maybe it’s because 2012 was the year where none of the “prestige” films were universally loathed – every film seemed to have its lovers – so the lines in the sand were drawn and extraneous conversation on them has become so loud and distracting there seems to be little use or point to actually entering the ring to engage when discussion of the actual films seem not impossible but superfluous…? So, I’d very well just chalk it up to I thought Les Misérables was very well done. I’d see it again (I have) and leave it at that…

Except, obviously I won’t leave it there. Because, golly, what is it about musicals? It’s probably dubious to draw parallels to the “un-loved by critics” scenario that was Rob Marshall’s Nine but even more than folks happening to not like them poor reviews of musicals – specifically film musicals adapted from Broadway shows – tend to be so despotic in their disgust that I sort of quaver at contributing anything to the subject. Because, fair enough, I adore the musical genre – on film and stage – and even as within the last twenty years of big stage to film adaptations Les Misérables is the one whose source material I’m least beholden to (with the exception of The Phantom of the Opera which I generally have no interest in) I like when musicals open and I like them to succeed. So, naturally, I was mildly miffed not so much at the mixed response (which is itself inaccurate, because the film seems generally well received it’s just that the volume of the non-appreciators is piercing) but at the way it reminded me of weird things people ask of the genre and – more minor – this weird sweeping critical tool where single aspects of film become the weapons which they perish by. It feels….debilitating, and I hate talking about movies if talking about it is going to bum me out and when there’s that feeling that you need to wade through the mitigating muck just to reach the actual film, well… (I didn’t even write an actual review of Nine until nine months after I saw it). But, what good is a rebuttal in cinematic form? Little. On with the song…
And, what a continuous and extended song. I think musical form will always fall into that weird grey area because different people expect musicals to fulfil different equations more than just having music. The situation becomes further thorny, especially a musical which the director wants to be “realistic” in some aspects, because on one hand continuous singing invites suspension of disbelief even if this particular edition of the story asks for focus on realism, or at least naturalism. Les Misérables is of the school of dramatic musicals, which some may argue is in the musical department but not necessarily of the musical department as in not having the truest inclinations of a movie musical. The story, the main one at least, is familiar – in 19th century France former convict Jean Valjean tries to live his life as a new man while being doggedly hunted by his former jailer Javert. That overarching is the main arc which takes us through some two decades. Within that, four smaller arcs exist – factory worker Fantine’s tragedy; the tale of her young daughter, Cosette, and her new guardians the Thenardiers; older Cosette’s romance with quasi-revolutionist Marius; and Marius’ involvement in the historical June Rebellion. As I said, there’s a lot going on here. It’s a big song.

Hugo’s novel is gargantuan and with the dozen or so important characters in the main cast even at 150 minutes there’s a lot of material and character bits to envelope in the run time. Enter the oft-discussed and lambasted use of close-ups. My initial response is a shrug just because I do not have it in me to review the reviews. Still... I will say although I don’t find the use of close-ups either overwhelming or gaudy I understand Hooper’s proclivity for it here. At its worse, any production of Les Misérables runs the risk of seeming too caught up in its period details and painted in much too broad strokes to work as what Hugo intends for it to be – viscerally moving melodrama. With two and a half hours to know all these people allowing us to observe them at their closest in key moments remove us from the tangential and thrust us – sometimes uncomfortably, but necessarily – into their immediate suffering. For better or for worse this is a film of emotion – I did not weep as many have claimed to – but you must feel it for it to work. And, no matter how much cinematic technicals have improved over the decades the best vessel of telegraphing human emotion on camera will always be the face.

...Look down....more below the jump...
But, Hooper’s finest contributions to the film are not even dependant on his use of close-up. It’s not the best number of the film, but the often comedic-enhanced “Lovely Ladies” turns into a grotesque, and chilling choral number that’s more horrific than dramatic. More to the film’s credit, though, is the work done in the the extended – eventually foiled – rebellion which is part of the superior second-half of the film. It works so well in the bathetic melodrama of the film’s scale by wisely keeping us with the young men throughout until the imminent, but certain, failure of their endeavour is telegraphed in tragic ways. If the first half suffers (at least relative to the second) it’s because the one, two, three, four time-jumps threaten to upend the pace of the scenes leading up to them but with an hour to spend on the barricades the ability to become affective and effective is pronounced – and considering the sly use of the true finale it’s lucky that the barricade portions work so well. It helps, too, that Eddie Redmayne – the film’s strongest performance – has some of his finer scenes there.

Jackman is, in theory, the actor best served by the film since it is his story and he does fine work as the convict turned mayor turned father. The inherently, vaguely Cliff-Notes, nature of the supporting tales poses difficulty to the actors - so much work , so little time - so it is even more significant how well the entire cast of fair to small roles acquit themselves of that problem. It helps that each of them has at least one main number for themselves and like when any ensemble-driven film things are best when the characters intersect. The movement from “The Robbery” to “Javert's Intervention” to “Eponine's Errand” is so seamless and the actors are all committed and it helps that it's the scene Hooper directs most efficiently (the close-up from Madame Thenadier's gaunt face to Valjean's to the fake-baby is a particularly efficient cut).

To some extent, the fact that the live-singing has become the platform on which the film rests seems wrong but it ultimately seems disingenuous to mock it since it’s put to such good use. For one, Les Misérables sounds good, and, I’d have to go back to investigate properly but it boasts some of the better orchestrations of the score. And, the singing, ranging from fairly good (Crowe) to excellent (Tveit) is good enough for me to pleased with the entire endeavour. Call it justification, but Crowe’s characterisation of Javert as such a rote-machine only makes his sometimes perfunctory singing work as more effective for me. His “Stars” will never be the first I reach for, but his place in the film is secure. There are parts of me that wish in taking a legendary text to heart Nicholson and Hooper might have been braver in their enterprise but then the film’s more direct source is the musical and not the film and thus so many will miss the wily adaptation techniques used. The film’s movement of songs and plot-points around only tighten the movement of this would-be sprawling piece so that the film manages to have such a continuous movement of forward thrust that its length seems incidental – even when the editing in the first half hour (Valjean’s Soliloquy is curiously, bizarrely, edited).

Have I thoroughly discussed all the objectionable aspects to justify any appreciation of Les Misérables? I suspect not, but then, to what end? Like with any random film it will work for you, or it will not. If by “Fantine’s Arrest” when Hathaway in her single best line reading yowls “yes, you were there and turned aside” you find it easy to turn aside perhaps it’s not for you. But, then then the insistence on objecting so much to the possibility of it being for others eludes me, because it is for me.



CrazyCris said...

Brilliant post!

I'm not usually a fan of musicals that are "always singing" (as opposed to a bit more dialogue), but in this case I didn't mind it one bit! Perhaps because of the live singing, but it felt very real, very immediate.

But I'm also biased in its favour because in Spain they don't the music in musicals... so that means I got 90% of the film in English and only 10% in Spanish! lol! :p

I thought the actors were quite brilliant! The close-ups did bug me in some of the numbers, not the more emotional solos though.

Now I've got to go back and read the book (for what I think will be the 3rd? time!).

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

cris glad you liked the review, gladder that you liked the film.

Jose Solís said...

If you waited nine months to write about Nine (which we know wasn't a coincidence), shouldn't you have waited to be miserable before writing about Les Mis?

*existential rant over*

PS: is it normal that most of the people who knew the score and music before are the biggest defenders of the movie version? I'd never listened to this music before and I thought the orchestrations were truly grotesque and obnoxious. The sound in fact, more than Hooper, was what I hated the most. Can you try to remove your previous knowledge of the music from your movie review and see if us non-fans might be onto something? Similarly I hadn't any familiarity with Chicago or Dreamgirls or Hairspray before their movie versions and each of those I truly enjoyed. I hummed the songs afterwards and bought the soundtracks even! With this one however, the mere thought of the opening "dum DUUUUM" horns scares me.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

jose but there are people who admit to not being familiar with the original version that like how it sounds so, surely, it's not that easy a categorisation. it's rough with any adaptation, or quasi-adaptation because i can't un-know the knowledge i have of the material. as a reticent appreciator but not quite lover of the score i might not even deny the obnoxious (it's not subtle) but i don't find it ugly.

(chances are any stage to musical adaptation i'll be familiar with, i really liked nine but it's sound and score work was suspect.)

now let's kiss and makeup :)