Thursday, April 11, 2013

Les Miserables – father daughter team review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 80 plus films later, here is the review for March. It’s a team effort with my daughter

Les Miserables
A film review by S(hannon) and S(teve) Taylor.

Les Miserables needs little introduction. It is a book, written by Victor Hugo, set during the French Revolution, a tale of courage, hope and redemptive love amidst poverty and power. It is a film, of at least ten versions, stretching back to 1934. It is a musical, first staged in 1985, now one of the world’s longest running, which has given us the timeless tunes, including “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?”

All of this means that Les Miserables (2012) a film of the musical of the book, carries a considerable burden, a weight of expectation carried by both audience and cast.

For the audience, musicals are an acquired taste. Les Miserables (2012) is “sung-through.” No line of dialogue is spoken. Songs allow a long and lengthy story to be woven in ways that offer continuity yet introduce complexity. The opening chorus “Look down” suggests subservience when sung convicts. The same line when latter sung by beggars in Paris becomes a cry for justice. However, such advantages are based on a suspension of reality, a willingness to take seriously a tightly uniformed Javert exercising authority (“You are a thief”) through melody. One S Taylor went hesitant, a musical agnostic. The other S Taylor went expectant, a lover of song.

For the cast, could the Hollywood A-listers, the likes of Russell Crowe (Javert), Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Hugh Jackman (Valjean), sing as well as they have been seen to act?

The answer is no. Which, apparently is deliberate. Russell Crowe responded to one vocal critic (American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert), that the goal was a performance that was “raw and real”. The cast refused any tweaking at a latter date in the studio editing suite, rejected any offers of overdubbing by professional singers.

At times these flaws, all ‘raw and real’, worked. They pointed to humanity, reminded us of reality, increase the intensity of emotion.

But only sometimes. Some performances deepened the emotional intensity (Marius’ (Eddie Raymond) “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” a case in point). In other songs the intensity leaked, the arrogant melody of Javert’s “You are a thief” diluted by a voice more ordinary than operatic.

The attempt at the twisting of genre, the filming of a score of songs, has gained mixed critical reception. Well known film critic Anthony Lane, panned it with the memorable line: “I screamed a scream as time went by.” Yet the Academy awarded Anne Hathaway Best Supporting Actress for her heart wrenching rendition of this very song, while the film also achieved Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Sound Mixing. 

Those with a theological ear will find a wealth of material in Les Miserables, whether in book, film or musical. God is with the poor. The poor are grace bearers. Prayer is preferable to violence.

These themes remain as radical in the 21st century as in the 19th when Victor Hugo dreamed his final dream: “I leave 50 000 francs to the poor … I believe in God.” (Victor Hugo’s official will).

Posted by steve at 09:31 PM

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