19 December 2012

Les Misérables

Hugh Jackman holds Isabelle Allen in a scene from "Les Misérables."

Let me put this out there right at the start: I don't "get" musicals.

Maybe I'm being shortsighted, but they just don't make much sense to me. I know the genre is no more artificial than any other, yet I can't help wondering how all the characters knows all the words, melodies and dance steps. (Maybe these are the original flash mobs, and the filmmakers left out the scenes of them planning their little get-togethers.) And I simply don't care for the music of most musicals, which probably is my biggest problem.

However, I can sit back and admire parts of "Les Misérables" without becoming remotely engaged in the material.

Directed by Tom Hooper ("The King's Speech), the movie is based on the popular stage musical by Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer, which in turn was based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. This is the first film adaptation of the musical, which premiered in 1980 in France and 1987 on Broadway.

With virtually no spoken dialogue, Hooper had the actors sing live on the set, lending an immediacy and intimacy to the performances that's rare for a musical. They might not hit every note perfectly, and that is a welcome change of pace.

Hugh Jackman leads a stellar cast as Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, now free on parole. Struggling to find his way in the world, he's taken in by a kindly bishop, who encourages him to start a new life. After breaking parole, he reinvents himself, and eight years later, he's become Monsieur Madeleine, owner of a factory and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.

One of his factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway in a heartbreaking turn), resorts to selling herself after she loses her job due to the discovery of her illegitimate child. Valjean comes to her aid, and with Fantine near death, promises to care for her daughter, Cosette. At the same time, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) recognizes Valjean as the ex-convict he has been hunting ever since he broke his parole nearly a decade earlier.

While eluding Javert, Valjean collects Cosette (Isabelle Allen) from a pair of crooked innkeepers, the Thénardiers (a scene-stealing Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and spends the next nine years raising her in anonymity.

Eddie Redmayne, left, and Amanda Seyfried are shown in a scene from "Les Misérables."
Javert eventually catches up to Valjean again, and just as Valjean is about to go into hiding, Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) meets Marius (Eddie Redmayne), one of a group of students plotting a rebellion. This being a musical, they instantly fall in love. Much of the remainder of the movie centers on this love story and an attempted revolution.

Given the stage musical's immense popularity, there is a built-in audience for this that knows the story and won't care about narrative issues, such as a lack of focus and a running time that stretches beyond two-and-a-half hours.

They "get" it, and I don't, which doesn't make either of us right or wrong. I#<\p>at least can recognize "Les Misérables" as being well acted (Hathaway seems most likely to garner awards consideration), and you probably can tell if it's for you regardless of anything I write.

Greg’s Grade: C

(Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements. 157 minutes.)

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