Sunday, March 24, 2013

Les Miserables

Well, anybody who knows me probably knows what my reaction to the film version of "Les Miserables" would be.  I wept buckets, literally cried off my mascara, and genuinely LOVED it.

Ahem, I do have history with this "musical".  I've seen it performed on stage twice.  After the first time, I got the soundtrack and learned all the songs.  Then in the car on long trips, especially, I'd sing along to the soundtrack and do everybody's part, from Valjean to Fantine to even Javert...Also, as a true theater geek, the staging (meaning the clever sets that could fold and unfold to make different scenes) mesmerized me.  I remember sitting on the fourth row from the stage and leaning way over to the side to figure out the silent hydraulic connections that moved the revolving stage.  ("Wow, how cool was that?!!")  I was so close that when they fired the cannons at the barricade I was coughing from the smoke.

"Les Miserables" is a magical interpretation of the classic French novel by Victor Hugo.  It is a brilliant piece, but I believe it is more opera than musical comedy - very little about it is a comedy. Even the innkeeper and his wife, who are the comic relief, have some very dark moments.

Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) has given us a film that incorporates the scope of the screen.  In the theater, we have to be very clever with sets and movement to suggest space.  In film, they shoot on locations, giving an enormous scope to the movie, even though the acting style is smaller, more intimate, due to the capabilities of close camera work on the characters.

There's been a lot of buzz because the film actors sang live during their takes, instead of lip-synching to a recorded "perfect" version.  Well, guys, that's what most stage actors do in every show.  It is the exception rather than the rule for them to lip-synch.  You may not always get the most perfect version but the actors can get deeply into their roles and put the emotion in the music.

In the film version of "Les Miserables" the emotion is so deep into the music, it will knock you off your feet.  Songs such as "Bring Him Home" sung by Valjean (Hugh Jackman), "I Dreamed a Dream" sung by Fantine (Anne Hathaway), and the poignant "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" sung my Marius (sorry I was crying too hard to read the end credits...) are delivered so passionately, they are memorable in film history.  The last song is especially bittersweet because when Les Miz became a world-wide stage sensation, "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" was adopted by the AIDS activists.  It reminds me of some of my theater friends we lost to that disease.

Anyway, back to the film--- Jackman's voice is surprising in its range.  Valjean's songs, indeed most of the songs in this show, are difficult to sing.  Another point for considering this an opera.  I've heard criticism of Russell Crowe's voice in the role of Javert, but I think he did a valiant job.  You could hear his zeal at first, his determination, and his sad bewilderment at the end.

I've heard the great Patti LuPone's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" from the original Broadway cast.  She is a powerful singer and a wonderful actress.  Anne Hathaway does not have as powerful a voice, but she turned in a mesmerizing performance, with intense emotion suitable for the medium of film.

Then we come to my favorite song, "On My Own," sung by Samantha Barks as the tragic Eponine - yes I know Fantine is tragic, too, but somehow Eponine speaks more to me.  Besides, they're allowed to have more tragic characters.  They're miserable, right?  Ms. Barks has played Eponine onstage and was spot on with the music, again wringing tears from my eyes.  It's a darned good thing I watched this at home instead of embarrassing myself in a movie theater.  Nobody likes it when the woman in the next row is sobbing and having major hiccups.

Oh, and by the way, Ms. Barks has the tiniest waist I've ever seen on a woman, even a young one, without the aid of a very tightly laced corset.  Trust me, she could not have sung like she did if she was corseted so tightly.

Amanda Seyfried, also seen in "Mamma Mia", has such a high, sweet soprano, she made an excellent adult Cosette. 

 I was impressed by the voices of the film's cast, even the minor characters and extras. As I said, it is not an easy score to sing.

In this version of the film, Tom Hooper as director has managed to give us all a glimpse of the real streets of Paris during the time portrayed.  I know the scene with Valjean carrying Marius through the infamous sewers of Paris was so realistic you could almost smell the excrement.  Let's face it, as dirty and tawdry as some of the characters looked you could almost smell them, too.  Bravo to the costume designer, the art director, and everyone else who helped bring this to such vivid life.

Also, BIG KUDOS to the voice coaches who helped the singers do so well.  It was a lovely job all the way around.

There is a reason this play was translated into many different languages and played successfully all over the world.  It speaks to the human condition - people from every corner of the world can relate to it.  The film carries on that powerful tradition.

When the book was published, it was translated into English. Confederate soldiers kept tattered copies and read them aloud around the campfire during the Civil War identifying with the young student rebels in the story. They called it "Lee's Miserables."

Is this the best picture of 2012?  That's for you to decide.  It's so very different, but then all the other nominees are different from each other.  That's the beauty of our pop culture - we're all free to have our favorites, which may or may not win awards.

Okay, on to Spielberg's film "Lincoln."  The dvd is due out on Tuesday.  I'll watch it and post my review this week.

Enjoy your favorite form of entertainment!

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