Sunday, January 6, 2013

Les Misérables (2012)

I have nothing to compare this to.  Never read the book, never saw the stage version.  Never saw a film of the book, or watched any youtubes of the stage version.  Didn't even know enough French history to know if the 1832 uprising would succeed or fail.  I was a Les Mis virgin!  But Mrs. Sgt. T wanted to go, and it sounded like a nice night out, so we went.

Oh, my.

I was not quite in tears like she was.  But I was in slack-jawed awe for much of it, I'll confess.  I responded readily to the noble melodrama of the story, and the beauty and sweep of the music.  It rocked.

Voices.  Amanda Seyfried's ethereally pure soprano, with that birdlike vibrato, was like nothing I'd expected to hear in a theater in 2013.  It was so gloriously old-fashioned and unabashedly virginal....  Hugh Jackman's singing was a pleasant surprise.  Mrs. Sgt. T laughs, because she's been youtubing him for months in anticipation of this film.  But he was really good....  Anne Hathaway's scene - you've probably heard about it, and if not you'll know it when you see it - was spellbinding.  A single take, in close up, singing live...  In fact, the only disappointing voice was Russell Crowe's.  He sounded nervous and constrained.  But physically, and in feeling and manner, he was perfect for the role, so I guess it was worth letting him sing...

Look.  Again I come back to Anne Hathaway's scene.  Not only was it a brave decision to let her sing it in such tight focus, but the lighting, off-center composition (for most of the sequence she's on the right side of the frame, looking out of the frame to the right), and grain of the film combine to make a thing of great beauty.  Most of the film looked like that:  the colors were rich but muted, the textures subtle and shaded rather than bright and clearly-defined.  Like a dark pastel sketch.

Themes.  I know this has been in production forever, so I doubt it's more than serendipity that it echoes the Occupy movement's aims so neatly.  It does, though, and that lends it power.  Javert's dutiful upholding of unjust laws places him squarely on the wrong side of history and human progress, right?  Same as pepper spray cop...  Meanwhile, the love story.  I suppose it does blunt the political thrust of the material.  After all, the film's final vision of revolution, liberation, fraternity, situates them on barricades in Heaven, not on earth, right?  I.e., the film's elevation of relationships to the same plane as social justice could be said to confuse the issue.  But there's another way to look at it, of course, which is that the central insight being presented is that the greatest thing in life is to love other people.  Love for a sweetheart, love for a child, love for the poor:  it's all the same thing.  Enough of that and we'll have people mounting the barricades here, too.


Matt said...

I saw this over the new year break, with about the same amount of foreknowledge as you -- I expected Hathaway's part to be much bigger, put it that way -- and enjoyed it a lot too. I had no idea there were so many Australians in the French Revolution! (And Hugh Jackman is great, isn't he? I knew he was from musical theater but I hadn't seen him sing before.)

(spoilers ahead, for any comment-readers who haven't seen it) I have to say, though, the final sequence didn't really satisfy me. I expected to see Javert up there on the barricades too, and I did _not_ expect to see dead soldiers on the ground. Surely in Heaven of all places, the joys of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" should be extended even to those who were our enemies in life.

Tanuki said...

Good point about expecting to Javert in Revolutionary Heaven. I didn't have quite that reaction, but when he undercovered his way behind the (earthly) barricades, I found myself wondering for a moment if, in fact, he had decided to join them for reals. By that time we know (he shout-sings it over one of Valjean's songs) that he came up on the streets, and there's a beat or two of explanation skipped before he shows up at the barricades. We suspect that he's there to spy, but we're not completely sure, or at least I wasn't. I guess what I'm saying is that it would have made some sense for him to join the revolutionaries.

And, therefore, it would have been proper to see him united with his brothers-in-poverty in Heaven, as you say.

Cat said...

Oh, how wonderful! As a childhood and teenage musical theater junkie, I have all of the music and lyrics of Les Mis hard-wired into my brain, so along with the visual and aural pleasures you describe will also come my intense emotional connection to how I felt about this play in the past when I wept in the theatre as students (futilely yet nobly) armed the barricades and fell one by one. Your description makes me so eager to see it, and some of my anticipation had been tempered by complaints from other viewers that the close-ups were exhausting or awkward. After your review, my excitement is renewed.