Andy Bockelman: ‘Les Mis’ musical stirs emotions
December 27, 2012
Steamboat Springs — How many times has a filmmaker come out with a dynamic debut only to disappoint with his sophomore effort? For those who have suffered the No. 2 Blues too many times, the glorious "Les Misérables" is sure to leave you less miserable.
In 1815, French convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is at long last released from prison after 19 years of backbreaking labor, harsh treatment and the despair of knowing he's served an unjust sentence for an infinitesimal crime. Although he's no longer bound by chains, he may as well be: Life on parole is no better than prison as he struggles to find work or lodging because of his status as a lawbreaker.
When he attempts to rob a kindly clergyman (Colm Wilkinson) and is shown leniency rather than austerity for the first time in decades, Valjean strips himself of his identity and vows to make a new path for himself. As the years go by, he makes good on that resolution only to be hounded again and again by the tenacious police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Valjean's past life only gets further complicated when he takes pity on a destitute young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and becomes the caretaker of her daughter (Isabelle Allen) and forever tries to redeem himself in the eyes of God for all his mistakes.
For all his stage work in the world of musical theater, not to mention his frenetic attempt to host the Oscars, we've yet to see "X-Men" star Jackman in a live-action movie that's all about singing and dancing.
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Has it been worth the wait? The answer is "oui, oui, monsieur."
Jackman never disappoints, melodically or dramatically, as the hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders, who, no matter how much good he does, never is able to atone for his misdeeds in his own eyes or in those of the man who always will see him as Prisoner 24601.
As for Crowe, it's anyone's guess whether it's the actor or the role that's truly wooden, but somehow the combination works in bringing to life the sanctimonious Javert, the epitome of harsh, unyielding judgment, who inspires dread among all around him with his musical motif, the rush of steady staccato notes.
Hathaway is heartbreakingly real playing the hardworking factory worker Fantine, whose life is pulled apart bit by bit once she loses her job and is forced to sell her hair, teeth and body to support her child. While novice actress Allen is fine as the oft-mistreated Cosette, Amanda Seyfried looks every bit the lovely ingénue as the grown version of Fantine's daughter, who years later, falls deeply in love with the idealistic student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) amid the tumult of uprisings in the streets of Paris.
The grit, grime and grease of the lower classes of 19th century France is hard to miss with the title unwashed masses of Victor Hugo's masterpiece always in the background. The plight of the poor and forgotten has been told many times onscreen, but this is the first instance of any director undertaking the task of getting Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's stage musical on camera, though plenty have tried since it hit Broadway 25 years ago.
As the key to the possible triumph or failure of any film version of "Les Mis," the soundtrack — with much-loved songs like "Lovely Ladies," "Who Am I?," "Castle on a Cloud," "Master of the House," "On My Own," "One Day More," "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and the always transcendent "I Dreamed a Dream" — is laboriously recreated through live singing, one of filmmaker Tom Hooper's many artistic choices gone right.
But even the most faithful "Les Mis"-ophile can't say Hooper's version is perfect. For instance, Crowe's vocals may leave you wanting a refund in the first few minutes, and the Cockney dialect of the street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) may as well be straight out of "Oliver!"
Looking at it overall, you'll weep, laugh and feel inspired, often at plot points you wouldn't expect, even if you've listened to the Broadway cast recordings until the CD broke.
Andy Bockelman is a Craig resident, freelance writer and Denver Film Critics Society accredited film fanatic who occasionally reviews movies playing in Steamboat Springs.