Friday, December 28, 2012

Movies vs. Musicals

Yesterday, I got to see one of the movies I've been dying to this season. Les Miserables. I saw the stage version for the first time in April '88. I was in New York City for spring break my freshman year at college, and as a theatre major, Broadway was my drug of choice. I had nose bleed seats, but that night, I fell in love.

In the years since, I've seen Les Miserables sixteen more times in three different cities. Needless to say, it's my favorite musical ever, so my excitement going into the movie theater? Pretty unparalleled.

I walked out with my brain abuzz. Is it the greatest movie ever? No. But that doesn't mean I didn't cry at certain parts, or that I won't buy it as soon as it's available on Blu-ray.

The movie has definite strengths. The cinematography is sensational, gritty and sweeping as epics are meant to be. Some performances absolutely shine, as well. Anne Hathaway portrays Fantine as an angry, desperate woman, and her one-shot solo of "I Dreamed a Dream" is stunning. Hugh Jackman's transition from the bitter convict to the well-meaning father is clean and realistic, even if his vocals sometime strain to reach the purity the part often demands. As Cosette, Amanda Seyfried gives one of the more sympathetic versions I've ever seen, though her vibrato gets annoying by the end of the long (2 hours and 38 minutes) movie. The Thenardiers - Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter - aren't the comic caricatures that are often seen onstage but instead dark reminders of the seedier side of survival.

A couple performances pretty much fail for me. I've never been a fan of Marius as a young romantic lead, but Eddie Redmayne manages to turn him into an even bigger flake than usual. (On a side note, I just don't understand the physical appeal of him at all. He always reminds me of Cletus the slack-jawed yokel.) I've adored Russell Crowe for decades, but this is a singing role, not an acting one, and his nasally, rock style of singing - sliding into notes - is utterly unsuited to the operatic style Les Miserables requires. Javert is actually my favorite male character of the show, a tragic figure broken by his inability to accept any flexibility, especially his own, but I felt nothing of his inner conflict as played by Crowe.

Some of director Tom Hooper's choices didn't work for me, either. He plays it too heavy-handed sometimes in driving home his symbolism, like Javert's literal walking of edges and the giant eye looking over Valjean's shoulder during "God on High." His decision to change some of Eponine's actions turns her unrequited love from being sympathetic to selfish, and the complete exclusion of her from the final number weakens the theme of selfless love that makes Les Miserables resonate.

Because that is ultimately what this is about. One of my favorite lines from anything ever comes from the final moments. "To love another person is to see the face of God." It's about learning to care more about someone else than yourself. Fantine giving everything for Cosette. Valjean taking steps from accepting the fresh start given to him by the Bishop (a moving performance from Colm Wilkinson himself) all the way to saving Marius at the barricade so Cosette can finally have the future she deserves. Javert's failure to accept his own growth when he breaks his code of ethics. In the stage version, Eponine was part of this cycle, the representation of unrequited love who will do anything for the object of her affection, even at the expense of her own life. It's a shame that Hooper felt that had to be changed for the cinematic release.

I'm not sure I need to see it again in the theater (though after checking imdb and seeing Frances Ruffelle - the original Eponine - credited as one of the whores, I'm insanely curious to go back and watch for her part), but I don't regret going. It's flawed, but there are so many layers to peel away from the experience, it was worth it.

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