~Christie, in last Wednesday's combox on Brideshead Revisited
Christie's words returned to haunt me Saturday night during the dark, frosty walk from cinema to car. Schönberg's music still pounded in my head, my cheeks were still tacky and my eyes hot from crying, and the leftover meditative mood kept all of us to a slow pace.
I didn't expect to have to write a second superlative review in the space of one week, but the movie astounded me too thoroughly to go unmentioned here, and besides, I needed a Monday post. Apologies, therefore, if I seem to be in raving mode.
I'm not. It was just that good.
Not being a film critic but merely a writer, singer, and artist's daughter, I've got only armchair observations on the technical side of the making. Director Tom Hooper did remarkable work with The King’s Speech, but I thought he equaled or surpassed himself with Les Mis. It's well written for the screen; William Nicholson’s adaptation of the Boublil/Schönberg/Kretzmer script is flawless, as far as I can tell, though I’ve not seen the stage performance to miss the handful of things that were cut or changed.
The cinematography is on the grand scale and beautiful, even a little bit magical, though that last might be the effect of heavy use of CGI. Shot in an almost monochromatic blue, with thoughtful use of earth tones and strong red as accents, the images retain a hint of stage-play feel while—as with Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera—offering perspectives to the moviegoer that simply can't be had through the proscenium arch. There are especially stunning moments: Javert's patent leather shoes pacing the very edge of the high bridge wall, for instance; furniture thrown from windows in the making of the revolutionaries' barricade; Cosette among flowers behind the gate at Marius' first visit.
|Hugh Jackman (left) as Jean Valjean|
and Anne Hathaway as Fantine
AP Photo/Universal Pictures
Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne—Cosette and Marius—were mostly new to me, but did quite credibly as the innocent-souled young lovers. Samantha Barks, strikingly beautiful and expressive, will probably always be my vision of Eponine. Child actors Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone floored me as young Cosette and Gavroche; I'm not sure how children learn how to act so convincingly so early, but Allen and Jackman displayed an exquisite father-daughter tenderness together, and Huttlestone stole the show every time the camera turned his way.
The Thénardiers could not have been better cast. Helena Bonham Carter is an astonishingly flexible actress; her roles have varied from sweet Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View to elegant Queen Elizabeth in The King's Speech to crazed Bellatrix Lestrange in the Harry Potter films, with Mme. Thénardier loosely resembling the latter (that hair!) I know less of Sacha Baron Cohen's work, never having seen Borat—all the way through the movie I wondered why his face was so familiar—but he didn't hold back a thing as the thieving, garish "Master of the House". The pair brought a much-needed comic relief to the story.
The only actor I questioned was Russell Crowe, who comes off a shade too generous, I think, to be properly believable as the merciless Javert. On the other hand, Crowe's touch of noblesse oblige made Javert unusually sympathetic, which prevented me from questioning very much.
The vocals, recorded live during filming rather than in studios for lip-syncing on camera, were unadorned and unstylized, to sound like speech, in contrast to Broadway-standard tone and projection. This made the lyrics more immediately emotional, more accessible, and while I heard tones I didn’t like, the effect was lovely overall. Crowe has a firm, if not very dynamic voice; Redmayne hit just a hair off strident now and again, but made up for that with passion; Jackman was a touch thin in the high register, but his whole heart was in the music. I was too busy crying to find fault with Hathaway's vocals. I loved both Barks and Seyfried, as well as Allen's innocent, lovely rendition of "Castle on a Cloud."
The extended facial closeups of various actors singing passionately, often while in tears, came off a little awkward, though not nearly as bad as it could have been. If the emotions had been off in the slightest, it would have been more than usually uncomfortable. But Hathaway, Jackman, Redmayne and Barks, all of whom underwent the camera in the face, performed without a slip. Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is particularly gutwrenching.
|Russell Crowe as Javert.|
AP Photo/Universal Pictures/Laurie Sparham
Which is why Christie's thoughts on painful beauty came back to me. For all Victor Hugo's spiritual wandering, this story is intensely, emotionally Christian, and for once Hollywood didn’t try to get in the way. It had been over ten years since I read the book, and I was thunderstruck by the lyrics, the scenes of prayer complete with candles and crucifixes, and the ending. The musical is impressively faithful to the novel, but if anything, it emphasizes the power of the bishop's gift to Jean Valjean more strongly than Hugo did.
For those who have never read the book or seen any of the adaptations thereof, the story may prove a bit challenging to follow. It may also be too much, emotionally speaking, for anyone dealing with extreme heaviness or sorrow in their own life.
Those are my only disclaimers. This was the first time in a couple of years that I felt that a movie was really worth the price of theater tickets.
The problem with claiming that a film is astoundingly good is that most of us respond to such reviews by plopping down in a theater seat and saying, eagerly, "Astound me!"—which often means coming away disappointed. So maybe it's better to go in with low expectations. Seize on your dislike for whichever of the actors you've never cared for. Imagine obvious computer effects and way-too-intimate photography. Remind yourself just how dang unhappy the story is. Whatever you need to think about. Just don't let it actually stop you from going.
Go with someone you're comfortable crying with, though.