Sunday, February 3, 2013

Les Miserables

By Jon Gallagher

For some reason, even though touring companies have come through my area with off Broadway productions of Les Miserables, I’ve never seen the stage version of it. I have, however, read the Victor Hugo novel on which it is based. One of my advanced French classes in college required it and I remember struggling through it, determined not to read it in English. Maybe that’s what made me a little biased when it came to the movie.

Les Miserables is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman), and Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway). The film has taken the Golden Globe award for each of those categories (Best Musical or Comedy) and is certain to take home a few Oscars as well.

But not if I were giving them out.

The story begins in 1825 and follows an ex-slave/criminal, Jean Valjean (Jackman), for the next 14 years. Valjean is caught stealing from a church, but through grace is spared when the priest fibs to police to protect him. He then devotes his life to helping others and becomes a successful businessman and mayor while being chased unmercifully by Javert (Russell Crowe), a prison guard who is sworn to bring Valjean to justice for violating his parole.

Fantine (Hathaway) is a young mother who works in one of Valjean’s factories. She is fired by a foreman and turns to prostitution to survive. In her death scene, she sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” (the song made more famous by Susan Boyle), and makes Valjean promise to watch after her daughter Cozette.

The next nine years are spent watching Cozette (Amanda Seyfried) mature and Valjean age. By this time, the peasants in Paris are ready to stage a revolution in protest of their miserable lives. Valjean is once again pulled apart by dilemmas: does he protect his charge Cozette, or does he allow her possible happiness by marrying one of the young revolutionaries?

Ninety-five percent of the movie is done in song. It’s more of an opera than a musical, along the lines of Jesus Christ Superstar or Phantom of the Opera.

Although I enjoyed the movie for the most part, I started looking at my watch about 90 minutes into it, wondering how much longer it was going to be. The film is 158 minutes (that’s two hours and 38 minutes if you don’t want to pull out the calculator) which, I think, is about 45 minutes too long. Things really started to drag towards the end.

Where I saw the movie, there were about 100 people in the theater and a few of them clapped at the end. I’m not sure if it was because they enjoyed the movie or because they were glad it was FINALLY over. I would have been in the latter group. I was surprised at the number of negative comments I heard on the way out.

The music was okay, but there are very few memorable songs, save “I Dreamed a Dream.”  I doubt if many people can hum or whistle any other tune from the movie. The vocals were impressive, especially Hathaway’s, though both Jackman and Crowe showed their considerable vocal skills as well.

I don’t believe it was good enough to take home the Oscar for Best Picture. Both Lincoln and Argo were better.

It’s hard to judge the acting performance of Hathaway and Jackman since all their lines were sung. Hathaway did a marvelous job with the big song in the show and I wouldn’t be surprised if she takes home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Her facial expressions and body language during her scenes added to her character.

As for Jackman, if he does get Best Actor, part of the credit should go to the makeup department. His transformation from slave to mayor to old dying man is amazing, but I’m just not sure how much was his acting ability and how much was makeup. I’m sure that the nomination stems mainly from the very touching scene at the end when he’s saying goodbye to Cozette. For me, that’s not enough to overcome someone like Daniel Day-Lewis, who maintains character throughout the entire movie. Jackman’s body language and facial expressions were not in the same league as Hathaway’s.

Some voters may feel obligated to keep up their “artsy-fartsy” image by voting for this as Best Picture, but as I said before, it’s not my choice. On my grading scale, I’ll give it a C+, mainly because of the length.

I won’t be buying or renting it once it comes out on DVD, but in all honesty, that might be the best way to enjoy this film with a pause button on hand to give an occasional break to the viewer. Just make sure you have a good sound system to get the full experience.

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