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. 

The King’s Speech

Use all your well-learned politesse

I figured it out.  When trudging through the History half of my double-minor, what I really needed from my alma-mater’s History department was Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in place of the aging Vietnam-o-philes paid to drawl over the podium until my ears went numb.

The King’s Speech, Tom Hooper’s heart-wrenching film concerning the life of King George VI at the cusp of World War II, flips the term “historical drama” on its proverbial head.  Not only is the drama between three or four core characters more engaging than any silly, battle-crammed historical epic, but the narrative also manages better accuracy with historical events.

The story centers around The Prince Albert, Duke of York (who later, of course, becomes King George VI), played by Colin Firth.  After his unfortunate stammer causes disaster at Wembley Stadium’s Empire Exhibition, Albert (“Bertie”) seeks help, at the behest of his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the beloved Queen mother, from speech therapist and failed Australian actor Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  The narrative focuses on the relationship between these two men as the Duke struggles with confidence, knowing deep down that he will soon have to take over the responsibilities of the throne from his older brother David (Guy Pearce), who cares more about marrying American socialite Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) than leading the British Empire.  The inspired supporting cast also includes Michael Gambon as King George V and Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, who skirts caricature at times, but it’s a bit hard not to with Britain’s hammiest Prime Minister.

Despite the tension in the world at the time, Hooper wisely chose not to cast an actor as Adolf Hitler, while still employing some focus on him.  In the rare instances Hitler is shown, he appears as himself in actual footage from the thirties and forties.  The performances of the actors themselves are unrestrained, well-researched and certainly Oscar-grade: our sympathies shift between Firth and Rush, though never far away from either of them.  The Duke desperately needs his stammer to disappear, but he’s still resistant to befriend a member of the common folk.  Carter, who plays the elder Elizabeth, proves she can do more than act weird, and her character is racked with sympathy.  Logue aspires to be an actor, and despite his age still attends small auditions for major roles in productions of Shakespeare.  Pay close attention during the final shots of the film and try to imagine what Logue is really thinking.

The cinematography also delivers the occasional surprise.  Instead of epic (there’s that word again), majestic shots, Hooper constricts us into narrow hallways and oblong rooms.  Heroic closeups of Albert and Elizabeth pop up here and there, but Albert’s face always reflects familiarity with these narrow hallways, as if he embodies the very words attempting to escape his throat.  His long walks through the halls of the castle and along the sprawling streets of Britain mirror the nation’s march toward war – a war Albert himself will have to declare personally in the titular speech.  The big scene itself is handled adeptly by Hooper, wisely staying with Firth and Rush, briefly allowing us to leave the room to see the reactions of others, but even when we leave the room, the tension does not cease.

Historically, the film takes minor liberties with Winston Churchill and actually waters down Edward (omitting the fact that he was probably a Nazi sympathizer and, along with Wallis, was acquainted with Adolf Hitler).  As Roger Ebert states, however, “This film finds a more interesting story about better people.”  Albert and Elizabeth were the parents of Queen Elizabeth II, and have for some reason not been given as much attention as the universally antagonistic pair of Edward and Wallis.  I suppose it’s the same controversial flair that got that Sid and Nancy film made.

The King’s Speech (2010); written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, and Michael Gambon