January 10, 2013

Les Misérables

Movie Poster via Google Images
Poignant, heartbreaking, breathtaking, simply Magnifique!  I have been eagerly anticipating this film for months and I wasn't disappointed. To be fair, I'm a big Les Mis fan. I first discovered the original French concept album by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg when I was in graduate school. For weeks, I hummed  J'avais Revé d'une autre vie and A la volonté du peuple as I struggled through the five volumes (365 chapters, 1900 pages in French) of Victor Hugo's 19th century novel. I couldn't image how anyone could even conceive of transforming this "wretched" saga into a musical! However, when I saw the show on Broadway in 1990, I was immediately convinced of its brilliance. The songs express feelings of hopelessness, vengeance, patriotism, love, and redemption. Since then, I have taken numerous student groups to Chicago and Milwaukee to "hear the people sing!" Their reaction is always the same: initially skeptical (especially the boys), they leave the theatre crying, singing, beaming in awe!

Christmas Day seemed a curious date for premiering a film with such a bleak plot (No, it is not about the French Revolution. Read this great article for historical accuracy). Yet still filled with the joy of celebrating how fortunate we are, I insisted that we see Les Mis on December 25 before the critics had a chance to influence my opinion. In fact its themes of redemption and charity, make it a surprisingly appropriate Christmas film.

Tom Hooper, director of The King's Speech (another fantastic film), transformed the spartan stage props of the musical into vivid images of nineteenth century France. I was immediately transfixed by the opening scene of Toulon prison convicts heaving a ship into dry dock. Jean Valjean is reminiscent of Christ as he raises the enormous French flag pole onto his shoulders like a cross. As Valjean struggles with his instinct to survive in a hostile society, a bishop's kindness and forgiveness provide him with the conviction and strength to transform his miserable existence. I was pleasantly surprised to see Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in the West End and on Broadway, as the bishop in the film. If you haven't seen the PBS 25th Anniversary Les Misérables Concert, do - it's wonderful!

Hooper's decision to film the singing live, rather than prerecording the songs and having the actors lip sync, is especially powerful. The performances of Tony Award nominees Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) and Eddie Redmayne (Marius) were impressive, while Russell Crowe (Javert) and Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) were simply adequate. Newcomer, Samantha Barks, was a brilliant Eponine. In college, I totally related to her role as "just a friend" to Marius as she sings my favorite Les Mis song, On My Own. For me, the best musical performance belongs to Anne Hathaway. Tears ran down my cheeks as Anne Hathaway (Fantine) sang I Dreamed A Dream. Thank goodness for the comic relief of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the ridiculous Thénardiers, or I would have been a wreck for over two and a half hours. Still, I was again sobbing by the Epilogue when Jean Valjean sings, "To love another person is to see the face of God!" (my favorite line) and the dead (Fantine, Eponine, Gavroche, et al.) begin the reprise of Do You Hear the People Sing. I can assure you, I wasn't the only one! When the flag waving was over and the screen went dark, the audience in the cinema actually applauded!

This morning, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also extended its approval with eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor - Hugh Jackman, and Best Supporting Actress - Anne Hathaway.

January 10, 2013 Photo of the Day: "Les Misérables"