Saturday, January 12, 2013

Les Miz: Little Man on His Feet, Standing on the Chair, and Clapping

I was once fortunate enough to have had a play I'd written selected for a staged reading at the Magic Theater in San Francisco. What still moves me to this day is the talent the director, but especially the actors, bring to a drama. The play I thought I'd written evaporated and became something else. It was scary and thrilling at the same time.

And so it is with "Les Miserables." I decided to see the film with a bit of skepticism, because, while sung dialogue can succeed, it can also fail miserably.  Russell Crowe (in the role of Javert) singing? Can he sing, and would doing so compromise his tough-guy persona and totally screw up the role? Could Ann Hathaway (Fantine) sing at all? I thought Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) could, because so many British actors receive classical training in all performance arts. But still.

That said, Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathon Pryce totally killed it with "Evita," which I felt was a far superior film than "Titanic," which took Best Picture at the Oscars. Parenthetically, Russell Crowe also starred in "L.A. Confidential" that year (1996), which was also ten times the movie "Titanic" was.

Directed by Tom Hooper (who also did "The King's Speech"), Les Miz is simply stunning. I had seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber production in San Francisco, years ago, and the movie was better. Why?

The plot and setting create circumstances for poignant drama--Jean Valjean, a convict who breaks parole, is ruthlessly pursued by Javert, variously a prison warden, cop and Captain of the Guards. Just out of prison, Valjean steals silver from a cathedral, only to be forgiven by the priest. With this booty, Valjean creates a new life in another town by building a badly needed factory, acquiring wealth and becoming mayor and generous man.

Moral crisis two erupts when Fantine, one of his workers, unfairly loses her job and is forced to sell parts, then all, of her body to support her little daughter, Cosette, who is under the care of some low-life innkeepers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both absolutely stunning). Fantine first sells her beautiful hair, then a couple of teeth (it's gut-wrenching to watch someone having their teeth extracted with oversized pliers) and finally herself. 

Valjean feels responsible for her eventual death and assumes the care of Cosette, which will have enormous consequences for both of them, and others, over the next decade in the backdrop of post-revolutionary France, including a classic man-the-barricades rebellion.

What makes this film succeed so fantastically well are the camera angles and closeups. It's as though the camera is, maybe, two inches from the faces f the actors as they sing their most poignant words. Rather than hide blemishes and other facial imperfections with makeup, these deficiencies are augmented, moles, freckles, blotches, excess collagen and all. We are used to seeing actors as extraordinarily attractive people when they hit the screen, but not here. They are us, or could be. The anxiety, fear, rage or joy they experience boil over, and you become so caught up in their personal dramas, you experience their pain, their disquiet, their strain.

I can't say enough about Hugh Jackman's performance. You want to jump into the movie and give him a hug, tell him it will be okay, settle him down. Anne Hathaway, who sings beautifully, creates such a tragic person who fights to keep a shred of personal dignity that I get tears remembering her. That Russell Crowe can sign is no surprise--he did tour with a rock band, after all. But what he does really well is bring dimension and complexity, through the force of his acting will, to a character who really doesn't have either.

When I read the novel years ago, one of my favorite characters was Gavroche, the gamin, buy, street urchin, who brings an impish energy to the plot. The boy who played the role in the film was one Daniel Huttlestone (yeah, I had to look it up), who turned in an amazing performance by singing and scampering his way through coach and cannon and gunfire.

The novel is--or was--a literary standard, replete with human archetypes, spiritual quests, socio-political critique, abject plight of poor people and moral pondering. The author, Victor Hugo, also famously penned a letter to the editor entitled, "J'Accuse," in which he challenged the political and military leaders in the famous Dreyfus Affair scandal, individuals who would become the pillars of Vichy France.

But for all his talent, and for all the wonder of his novel, I think Monsieur Hugo would be stunned over the energy and passion the film brought to his book.

Do not miss this film. And bring extra tissues.

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