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Jean Valjean, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Jean Valjean, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

(French) On December 25th we’ll finally get to see Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the Boublil and Schonberg musical Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name published in 1862. Hugo’s epic of intertwining lives across the first half of 19th century France has been adapted since its release into everything from radio plays to comic books and of course many films on the big and small screens. The hugely successful musical, affectionately referred to as Les Mis, is one of the longest running musicals on Broadway and has been performed in English since 1985. Since then it has picked up numerous awards, made unimaginable amounts of money and left people singing “Master of the House” against their wills (most memorably the late, great Lawrence Tierney).

Director Tom Hooper’s Les Mis follows his hugely successful The King’s Speech, which won four Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and grossed over $100 million in the states and over $400 million worldwide. The inevitable pressure of following a film so ridiculously successful is looming, especially since this film is so challengingly different from his last. The King’s Speech cost a mere $15 million and is a little, intimate story set against a very big time in history. Les Miserables is an operatic tale of a man’s struggle to find peace against the backdrop of a growing people’s revolution and weaves the stories of a dozen or so primary and secondary characters. Figures haven’t been released for Les Mis, but a glimpse at the trailer reveals a very expensive film, costing perhaps $100 million, easily the largest budget Hooper has ever worked with throughout his mostly television-based career.

For the role of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child, hunted by the overzealous officer Javert upon breaking his parole, Hooper cast Hugh “has-a-perfect-face” Jackman. Those who have heard Jackman sing on stage know he’s got a dynamite voice, and that movie audiences have totally missed out. Theater folks get Peter Allen and all we get is Wolverine. The man’s got an incredible voice and a bombastic presence perfectly suited to musicals, so Les Mis in many ways is long overdue in showcasing Jackman’s talents as a performer.

Russell Crowe seems an odd choice for Javert, the officer who hunts Valjean for decades, mostly because, well, he doesn’t sing. Okay, maybe he sings, but any role in which he has really excelled usually includes great deals of quiet intensity punctuated with impaling (Gladiator) or beating people up (LA Confidential). He could probably act the part but not sing it. Maybe we’ll all be pleasantly surprised — but probably not.

Anne Hathaway, who shed 25 pounds to portray impoverished factory worker turned prostitute, Fantine, has garnered near universal praise for her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” even from the harshest critics of the film. Hearing just a fragment of it played in the initial trailer for the film instantly made me excited to see it in theaters.

Playing Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, all grown up, is Amanda Seyfried with Eddie Redmayne as her love at first sight, Marius. Providing the comic relief, Sacha Baron Cohen plays the eternal con artist Thenardier with Helena Bonham Carter as his wife and partner in crime, Madame Thenardier. Samantha Barks reprises her role as Eponine from the stage with Aaron Tveit as the young leader of the revolution, Enjolras.

An unusual aspect of this movie musical is that all the actors are actually singing live during their scenes. The cast and director have commented on the importance of these live performances, allowing them more freedom as an actor to experiment in each take and give the director and editor more choices when patching together the final film. It’s also an attempt to mix a sort of musical method acting with the grit and grime of the makeup and art direction. You can see in great detail the burned and craggy skin Jean Valjean wears as a prisoner, and the crumbling façades of Montreuil-sur-Mer when he rises to become its mayor. The approach succeeds in blending the assets of both the novel and musical, keeping the songs but placing them against a context of gritty period reality — a drama’s face with a musical’s heart.

The potential problem with trying this combination is the disconnect between what you’re seeing and what you’re hearing, which leads me to the film’s reported shortcomings. Early November premieres in London, New York and Los Angeles drummed up awards buzz plowing headfirst, followed by the first set of mixed reviews in December. The part that immediately puts a tear in your eye (Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream”) seems to be the part that critics agree is the peak of the film, which leads to disappointment as that scene is only a half hour into the movie. Further dampers arrive courtesy of the troubling consensus (even among positive reviews) that it’s all just too big and bland to really get into your blood. This, for me, is frightening. When actors in full costume and makeup are singing and crying as a camera cuts from close-up to breathtaking panorama, you want to feel a sense of awe deep in your gut.

On the bright side, it seems that many reviewers finding fault with the film were also not so crazy about the musical, so it sounds like at least Hooper’s movie is faithful to its source material. That works for me. I like the musical. It’s all characters with simple passions, canyon-deep, propelling through a narrative that lets you have it right between the eyes. In fact, I can’t imagine a better match than Hollywood and Les Mis.

Les Miserables (2012) Official Trailer (HD): Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway

David Lundin was born in Illinois, went to high school in Wisconsin and received his BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in Minnesota. When not watching movies, he writes and draws and bikes and lives! David is currently a writer and illustrator living in Minneapolis and will one day, God willing, move to a land without snow. 

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French Crown Jewels: Empress Eugénie, by Barbara Redmond who writes about of the pieces from Eugénie’s private collection and the French Crown Jewels that were split up by the national assembly and sold at public auction. Stories of Empress Eugénie’s famous Bow Brooch, Pearl and Diamond Tiara, and private jewels.

French Empress Eugénie and her diamonds, by Barbara Redmond who shares the story of Empress Eugénie, the wife of Napoleon III, who lusted after diamonds — the most bejeweled clotheshorse and stylish woman of her day. Stories of Empress Eugénie’s famous Eugénue Diamond, Great Diamond Cluster, Consort Crown, and “Regent” Diamonds. 

Text copyright ©2012 David Lundin. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.