Les Misérables [Blu-Ray]
Director : Tom Hooper
Screenplay : William Nicholson (based on the stage musical, book by Claude-Michel Schönberg & Alain Boublil, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; from the novel by Victor Hugo)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean), Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Sacha Baron Cohen (Thénardier), Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier), Eddie Redmayne (Marius), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche), Isabelle Allen (Young Cosette)
The opening shot of Tom Hooper’s cinematic rendition of the long-running musical Les Misérables boldly and unashamedly announces the film’s epic ambitions. As the strains of the overture swell, the camera moves slowly up toward a tattered French flag floating in the ocean and then explodes through the surface, swirling high in the air around a massive ship that is being hauled by an army of convicts into a colossal stone port that looks like a Roman coliseum. A far cry from the musical’s opening of convicts digging a ditch, the shot is intensely theatrical in its over-the-top, look-at-me grandiosity while also establishing the film’s investment in a gritty sense of realism, however heightened it may be. For all its pop-operatic splendor, Les Misérables, as the title suggests, is about lowly and abused, mistreated and misunderstood souls clawing their way through a brutal, unjust world with only the promise of a redemptive afterlife to sustain them (it’s no surprise that that there are no fewer than three songs sung by the dying). Hooper, cashing in all the credit he earned with those Oscars for The King’s Speech (2010), goes for it all, freely mixing attention-grabbing cinematic artifice with blood-in-the-streets, shit-in-the-sewer, yellow-on-the-teeth realism. It is almost as if he is desperate for the audience to forget that Les Misérables was ever put on stage (or at least blast away our memories of it) even though he is careful to include a few compositions drawn directly from the theatrical production to satiate the die-hard fans.
For those who are not familiar, Les Misérables is based on the great 19th-century humanist novel by Victor Hugo, which was adapted to the musical stage in the 1980s by composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and librettist Alain Boulil (it reached Broadway in 1987 via producer Cameron Mackintosh, where it won eight Tonies). The central character is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who we first meet as a convict at the end of 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. Even after he is given his freedom from prison, he finds that he is a pariah, as his status as a parolee keeps him forever at the margins of society. His nemesis is Javert (Russell Crowe), a pious and legalistic policeman whose black-and-white view of the world does not allow for the moral complexity and potential for redemption in a man like Valjean, who eventually sheds his identity and breaks his parole in order to find success as a factory owner and mayor of a small town.
It is in that capacity eight years later that his path crosses with that of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who works in his factory in order to pay for her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) to be cared for by Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a pair of crooked innkeepers. After being unjustly fired from her position, Fantine descends into desperation, selling her hair and her teeth before becoming a prostitute just to stay alive. At her deathbed Valjean promises to take care of Cosette, who he adopts and raises. As a young woman, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a Parisian student who is involved in the ill-fated June Rebellion of 1832, which draws Valjean out of hiding and once again into Javert’s crosshairs.
As his work on The King’s Speech and the celebrated television mini-series John Adams (2008) attests, Hooper’s strength lies in drawing distinct, powerful performances from his actors, and Les Misérables is no different. For all of the enormous production design and elaborate digital effects, most people walked out of the theater talking about the performances, particularly Anne Hathaway’s Oscar-winning delivery of “I Dream a Dream,” which many people know primarily as the song the catapulted Susan Boyle to stardom on Britain’s Got Talent. Rather than having his actors prerecord their songs and then lip-synch on camera, Hooper had them sing live, a move that yields benefits never so powerfully as when Hathaway digs into her signature song, investing it with the kind of unfettered pain and longing and sorrow and resentment that the smoother Broadway style tends to gloss over. Brimming with tears and literally trembling with loss and fear, Hathaway’s Fantine is a portrait of human agony made sublimely beautiful.
Hooper’s live approach also benefits his other performers, all of whom seem invigorated by the chance to meld their physical and vocal performances. Jackman, a veteran of the Broadway stage (he won a Tony for The Boy From Oz), was a natural choice for Jean Valjean, and he bears the character’s desperate redemption well on his broad shoulders. Russell Crowe glowers authoritatively as Javert, and his singing has a slightly clipped, reserved quality that suggests his character’s steadfast adherence to the clarity of the law and reluctance to give in to human emotions. As the Thénardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide the film’s villainous comic relief, although it is not nearly as broad as it was on the stage, while Eddie Redmayne conveys the film’s most unfettered sense of romantic and political idealism (he plays virtue as well as he did perversity in Savage Grace). Unfortunately, as on the stage, Marius’s romance with Cosette is a fast-acted contrivance, one that is launched into with such speed and intensity that it never has a chance to fully flower; it is presented to us, rather than allowed to grow, and as a result it feels more like a plot point than a natural development. More affecting is the unrequited love for Marius felt by Éponine (Samantha Barks), the Thénardiers’ daughter who was once treated like a princess while Cosette was forced to sweep the floor but now finds herself living on the streets.
At more than two and a half hours in length, Les Misérables covers a lot of narrative ground (more than three decades of time pass and there are nearly a dozen major characters), and as a result the story has to keep a steady forward momentum. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator), working with Schönberg and Boublil, trims some of the songs and even cuts a few to speed up the tempo, although they also add in an immediately forgettable new song whose presence in the film can only be justified as a shameless ploy to win a Best Song Oscar (which it deservedly did not). While the film naturally dispenses with a lot of the political subtext that was so crucial to Hugo’s novel, it maintains the story’s fundamental focus on shared humanity and the desperation we all feel for order and justice in the universe, which is what makes the tension between Valjean and Javert crackle with such intensity.
Yet, Hooper doesn’t always demonstrate faith in the basic power of the story’s humanism or the inherently invigorating nature of the music (which, for my money, is the best of any theatrical production of its era), which is what explains the sometimes overtaxed cinematic effects for which he strives (was he aware that he would be competing against Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit and therefore tried to out-Jackson Jackson?). When he trusts in his performers and the songs, the film works marvelously with little flourish; Hooper clearly recognized how powerful Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was and shot the entirety of it in medium close-up with only the most basic of camera movements to keep Hathaway in frame. At other times, though, he sends the camera turning and twisting and flying all over, investing excess energy into moments that are already powerful enough on their own. It’s a crucial misstep that makes certain moments of the film feel unnecessarily bloated when they should be simply heart-rending. Thankfully, the story’s underlying belief in the redemptive power of humanity makes up for Hooper’s more strained devices and contrivances, and the film works emotionally even when it stumbles aesthetically.
|Les Misérables Blu-Ray + DVD + Digital Copy + Ultraviolet|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French|
|Distributor||Universal Studios Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||March 22, 2012|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|Les Misérables looks absolutely gorgeous in Universal’s stunning 1080p high-definition transfer. The film’s cinematography, which is one of its strongest assets, benefits enormously from the quality of the transfer, which renders both color and the fine detail of the production design exquisitely. From the rough cobblestones on the Parisian set, to the ever-present dirt and grime on actors’ faces, the image is bristling with minute detail, even in the darkest corners of the frame (and much of the film is very, very dark, but without ever sinking into visual muddiness). The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround soundtrack is also superb, with excellent use of the surround channels to immerse us in the songs and music. From the opening moments when the camera bursts out of the ocean to the crashing of waves and thundering strains of “Look Down,” you know you’re in for an impressive home theater experience.|
|In addition to the extremely informative screen-specific audio commentary by director Tom Hooper, the Blu-Ray offers an hour-long making of documentary titled Les Misérables: A Radical Approach. Within the doc we get six behind-the-scenes featurettes of varying lengths: “The Stars of Les Misérables,” which features interviews with Hooper talking about the importance of casting and various actors in the film discussing their roles; “The West End Connection” which includes interviews with Cameron Mackintosh, producer of the stage version of Les Misérables, as well as a number of theatrical stars who play roles in the film (the biggest of whom is Colm Wilkinson, the stage’s original Jean Valjean, who plays the bishop); “Les Misérables on Location,” which focuses on the real-life locations used in the film, including an enormous dry dock on the English coast (the oldest in the world, according to Hooper) and the mountains of France; “Creating the Perfect Paris,” in which production designer Eve Stewart discusses the building of the massive, intricately detailed Paris set; “Battle at the Barricade,” which covers how the barricade itself was actually constructed in real time by the actors hurling furniture and other objects out the windows and piling them in the street; and “Les Misérables Singing Live,” which focuses on the daring choice to have the actors sing live during filming, rather than lip-synch to prerecorded tracks. Also on the disc is “The Original Masterwork: Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables,” a much-appreciated 11-minute featurette that explores Hugo’s life and career and the historical backdrop and themes of the original novel.|
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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