Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  CNS/USCCB (A-III) Michael Philips (1 1/2 Stars)  Richard Roeper (A)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review 
Michael Phillips' review
Richard Roeper's review

Les Miserables (2012) [IMDb] (screenplay and direction by Tom Hopper, adapted from the beloved musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boubil / Jean-Marc Natel (orig. French lyrics), English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer itself based on the novel [IMDb] by Victor Hugo [IMDb] itself adapted to film countless times) is certainly one of the most anticipated English films of the year and of the still young decade.  No pressure ...

How did it do?  I confess that I've never been a Les Mis (musical) fanatic.  I did see the musical a total of one time (though I did like it when I saw it).  I just always found "grand productions" like stage versions of "Les Mis" to be too expensive for my taste.  Add to it, of course, the irony that the story is about desperate people (the title of the original book wasn't "The Miserable" ... for nothing ;-) culminating with an aborted minor idealistic uprising taking place somewhere in the midst of the course of France's tumultuous/revolutionary 19th century.  So the musical always felt rather "petty bourgeoisie" to me: "Those poor people. But weren't actors' voices and costuming/makeup _just remarkable_ ..."

I did however read the novel (_in French_ I might add with some pride. It took me a year, but I did so as I was trying to learn some French while serving in a Caribbean community in Central Florida with a Haitian population).  And I did see a number of the screen adaptations of the film during the course of my lifetime.  My favorite remains a 1995 French version that sets the story in the 20th century during the Nazi era. 

All this is to say that I approach the film-adaptation of the musical knowing that I'm not going to be a typical Les Mis (musical) fan, and so ultimately I'm not going to care if "the version in London/Sydney/New York in 1995" was "so much better than Hopper's movie."  My concern here is "Does Hopper's film do a decent job in adapting the musical to film?"

And here I would have to say that Hopper's "Les Mis" does an ... "okay" if not spectacular job.  On the scale of the _best_ screen adaptations of popular musicals where I'd put Evita [1996] / Hair [1979] and perhaps even Fiddler on the Roof [1971] / Jesus Christ Superstar [1973] at the top (in each case, the film directors were able to effectively transport the audience "there" to wherever the story was taking place) and the film adaptation of Godspell [1973] at the absolute bottom (where the film set largely in a trackless dump/slum _utterly failed to do that_ ...) IMHO this film scores somewhere in the middle: The setting feels "kinda like 19th century France" but not particularly convincingly.  Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette [2006], Martin Scorcese's Hugo [2011] and even the countless other film versions of Les Miserables (the novel), including the most recent American one [1998] which starred Liam Neeson, did a better job with transporting the audience to "19th century France" than Hopper's film did.

Then to his credit Hopper did try to "experiment" with the filming / recording of the musical.  First, he decided to use the conventions of standard film-making in filming this story (which meant filming close-ups of the characters, even as they are singing) rather than pretend the film was still being performed on stage.  Actually though this irritated at least one reviewer of this film, this same technique was used in virtually every other film adaptation of a musical that I can think of.  Part of what transported viewers into 1940s-50s era Argentina in the film version of Evita [1996], for instance, was the camera following Antonio Banderas and Madonna around as they sang their parts.  The same thing could be said of the filming of the characters in Fiddler on the Roof [1971].  Hopper does similarly in this film.

However perhaps the truly novel thing that Hopper did in this film was to choose to record the actors actually singing their parts on the set (accompanied only with a piano playing into ear pieces that they wore) with the rest of the music added only in post production.  The result was to make the singing of the lyrics have the "immediacy" of dialogue.  Yet truthfully from a technical point of view, this technical experiment would have worked better if Hopper would have the hired musical actors from the various stage productions to play the roles in the film rather than Hollywood actors.   This is because the musical actors from the stage productions were certainly hired for those productions, above all, for their voices rather than for their (non-singing) acting ability. In contrast, Hollywood actors don't generally sing for a living...  As such, while one could certainly compensate for the actors' weaknesses through the taking of multiple takes "on set," some of the singing in this film sounded, honestly, somewhat "flat" to me.

So is it a disappointment that Hopper's film adaptation of Les Mis wasn't perfect?  I know that many aficionados will be unhappy with the relative details of the production, though Anne Hatheway will almost certainly be nominated for best supporting actress for her role as the suffering Fantine (and she certainly did nail her signature song in the film).

However, my question would be:  Would Jean Valjean or Cosette or Fantine or even the good Bishop in the story really care if _the musical_ about their _suffering lives_ turned out ... "eh ... somewhat above average?"

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