Les Misérables

Mix it in a mincer and pretend it’s beef

Jackman/HathawayHowever wonderful and entrancing Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables may be, let us remember that its source material is a 1980 musical that is itself a somewhat fast/loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.  In that sense, it remains remarkably true to the spirit of the original work (and most of the events and character relationships) for a third-hand script 150 years later.  For those not familiar with the musical based upon the novel, Les Misérables (loosely translated as The Wretched, The Victims, or The Poor Ones) is a sung-through musical in multiple acts, which in a way is similar to Hugo’s novel, which is split into five titled sections.

The five sections, mostly titled after characters’ names, may have helped the average filmgoer figure out who’s important in the movie if included.  For instance, Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is the central figure who connects every character in the story, despite the fact that the character has less physical presence and longevity than most of the core cast.  Who would be able to guess her importance right off the bat?  Well, a reader would, seeing as Hugo titled the first section of the novel “Fantine.”  The pacing of the film, though, is expertly handled.  No time is wasted getting from event to event, even when several years pass, and as with a stage show, we are left to imagine what transpired in between.  Since the songs last longer than a simple conversation covering the same material, rendering the film 158 minutes, these quick transitions are especially appreciated, and do not subvert the idea that what happens later is earned.

The story begins in 1815 with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who earns parole after a nineteen year sentence.  However, the prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), tells him he’ll never be free as long as Javert is watching him.  Eventually, the starving Valjean is taken in by the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkinson), but steals his silver and retreats in the night.  When Javert’s men capture him, the Bishop, in an incredible act of kindness and forgiveness, claims that the silver was a gift to Valjean, and that Valjean in fact forgot the most expensive pieces, and gives him two beautiful candlesticks, along with the warning that he had better use this gift to make himself an honest man.  Amazed by this generosity, Valjean breaks parole and assumes a new identity, and eight years later, he becomes a factory owner and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Fantine, who works in the factory, is dismissed by an abusive foreman after he discovers that she’s been sending money to her illegitimate daughter and needs a raise.  Valjean, present in the room, ignores this because he spots Javert, now a police inspector, and worries that his old nemesis may be there to apprehend him.  Javert suspects, and his suspicions are confirmed when Valjean reveals his identity in order to save a man who has been wrongfully accused.  Before narrowly escaping the wrath of the obsessed Javert, who has been hunting him for almost a decade, Valjean brings Fantine (who has been forced into prostitution) to the hospital, asks her forgiveness, and promises to raise her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen, and later Amanda Seyfried).  He buys Cosette from the perfidious Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), greedy innkeepers who have worked the little girl to the bone and treated her like an animal.  Nine years pass, Cosette grows up, and the Parisan June Rebellion of 1832 is about to begin, led by Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette after passing her on the street, and she reciprocates.  Valjean, effectively Cosette’s father, feared this day, and now finds himself not only still in hiding from Javert, but involved in the revolution because of Cosette.

The beauty of Les Misérables, perhaps, is the fact that even after 150 years, I cannot say “You can guess where the story goes from there,” as I do about so many popcorn flicks made from unreadable modern scripts.  This is in part due to the fact that Hooper and company leave most of the story threads intact and do not attempt to water any of the action down for the ADD Generation – granted, these are threads that the stage musical also kept intact, and Hooper’s film only leaves out two of the original songs, while adding a brand new one (“Suddenly,” sung by Hugh Jackman).  Not since Aronofsky’s The Fountain has Jackman truly shown us that he can do something besides playing Wolverine, and if he wasn’t already slated to play Wolverine once again later this year,  I’d say that this is the role that will break him out of actiony brain-garbage for good.  Russell Crowe is convincingly narcissistic and troubled as Javert, though his singing chops are dubious at best, and his voice seems to mysteriously improve as the film goes on.  Redmayne, known to me only from last year’s My Week With Marilyn, may have a breakout role here, bringing an intimate sort of sympathy to Marius, the closest thing to a Boring Hero you’ll see in Les Misérables.  Samantha Barks, who has played Éponine in the stage show, reprises the role here, and successfully fuses the character of the novel with that of the musical.  Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perfect as the story’s most unscrupulous players, and while the innkeepers were not used for comic effect in Hugo’s novel, the musical version makes them seem like they were written for these two actors, especially Baron Cohen, who gets through “Master of the House” without channeling any of his “Ali G Show” characters even once.  The showstopper, however, is Anne Hathaway, who plays one of the younger Fantines we’ve seen, and sings the famous “I Dreamed a Dream” in a single 4-minute shot.  This move by the filmmakers is brave, risky, and a roaring success.

The film adeptly retains the deeper facets of Hugo’s characters, particularly Valjean and Javert, who seem polar opposites (Valjean the embodiment of kindness and redemption, and Javert a human manifestation of vengeance and obsession), but neither of whom are completely black-and-white.  Javert remains a misguided antagonist who cannot separate morality and lawfulness, which leads to his famous conundrum in the end.  The film’s only missteps, maybe, are the extended battle scenes, which are fatiguing and sometimes make the film feel as though everything was leading up to a big gunfight, and the sheer, for lack of a better term, “Britishness” of the whole production, which obviously cannot be avoided.  It’s just disconcerting to hear Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) speaking cockney on the streets of Paris.  Make no mistake: the positives outweigh everything else, but if I were to watch it again, I’d probably fast-forward the fighting.

Is Les Mis one of the best films of the year?  Probably, though I’m not yet sure how to compare it to other films.  But wait – that isn’t my job; it’s the job of the people at the Academy, who haven’t gotten it right since before the damn musical was written.

Les Misérables (2012); written by Alain Boubil; based upon the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, and Amanda Seyfried. 

My Week With Marilyn

Falling in love for ninety minutes

Forget the Mayans: when there comes a generation of boys who don’t fall in love with Marilyn Monroe, that’s when you know the world is truly ending and human sensibilities deteriorating.

My Week With Marilyn is not so much a biopic about Marilyn’s life as it is a slice of Colin Clark’s (if his memoir is to be believed), and a drive-by look at the contrast between how Marilyn was regarded and treated not only in Hollywood, but overseas.  The story follows Clark (Eddie Redmayne) as he takes a chance on becoming third assistant director (a glorified errand boy) for The Prince and the Showgirl, a film which despite being unsuccessful and panned by critics propelled Marilyn and Laurence Olivier (played expertly by Kenneth Branagh) into the heights of their respective careers.  During the shoot, Marilyn is on her honeymoon with new husband Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), and being the proverbial “stranger in a strange land,” struggles with the conventions and pressures of Olivier’s world.  Clark attempts to acclimate her into British society, and the two develop what Clark thinks is a blazing romance.  But it isn’t.  We know that.  Marilyn knows that.  She is lonely, afraid, drugged up (not by choice), and sporadically ill, and Clark is the only person who is nice to her.

The film, directed by Simon Curtis, paints a fair picture of Marilyn from the beginning.  Hollywood follows her everywhere.  She is fed pills by assistants who are supposed to be taking care of her, and their only reasoning is that she’s difficult to “control.”  This animal treatment extends to every extremity of her life, from the way her entourage simultaneously parade her around and shield her from the public to the way they cage her in temporary homes with constant surveillance.  Furthermore, they refer to her sweet, jovial personality as an “act.”  But we’re fully convinced.  She doesn’t even seem to know she’s “sexy” until Olivier blurts out on set that her portrayal of Elsie Marina isn’t utilizing her “natural talents.”  These scenes, while beautiful, also hurt.  Here was a woman idealized, abused, and misunderstood by virtually everyone she came into contact with.  Her depressions were misinterpreted as entitlement, her acting methods conflated with confusion.  The phrase “no one else understands you” is spoken to Marilyn by various characters, but they, we must suspect, are farthest from understanding.

Kenneth Branagh shines as Olivier, and is allowed to be a dedicated artist and a commanding boss, but also a bit of a blowhard and a relieving presence.  His feelings about Marilyn transform completely over the course of the film, and less than a month in her presence contorts his life in vicious ways.  Branagh even quotes Shakespeare at one point – he just can’t seem to get away from it.  Also in the supporting cast are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike; Zoë Wanamaker as Paula Strasberg, Marilyn’s overprotective acting coach who clashes with Olivier in some excellent banter-laced scenes; and Emma Watson (finally ditching Hermione) as Lucy, a young woman working in wardrobe, who begins as Clark’s love interest but turns out to be a backup plan.  Refreshingly, she seems to always be the one calling the shots in her scenes with Redmayne, even in the end.  Scott’s portrayal of Arthur Miller is exactly how you’d think Hollywood people look at writers: frustrated, bothered, weathered in the face, and perpetually grubby.  Who would have known he was about to write The Crucible?

The film’s best sequence is Clark and Marilyn’s first real day together, which begins when Clark, who has been banned from being near Marilyn, is ushered into a car by Marilyn’s bodyguard.  As he sits down, afraid, unsure, and the car begins moving, Marilyn pops out from under a blanket and claims that this is “the getaway car.”  It’s the one scene in which we bear witness to, perhaps, Marilyn’s real personality, free of her caretakers and feeling like she’s having an adventure of her own design.  The scenes that follow rival any romantic film of the year.  The drama is slightly lessened in that we know they don’t end up together, but there is a certain fascination involved: Clark, mistaking infatuation for love, forgets that he’s seven years Marilyn’s junior and that she spoke to him like a child earlier.  The shift in relationship dynamic is staggering, but Clark seems to be the only one who doesn’t see it (of course, later, he must).

The Oscar for Best Actress may already bear the scent of Michelle Williams, the spitting image of Marilyn not only in the film makeup and wig, but even more so in voice and aura.  If she wins for this film, it will be a well-deserved victory for her, but also, considering the material, a victory for Marilyn.

My Week With Marilyn (2011); written by Adrian Hodges; directed by Simon Curtis; starring Michelle Williams, Kenneth Branagh, and Eddie Redmayne. 

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