Tuesday, 15 January 2013

[Review] Les Misérables

Les Misérables (2012)

Director - Tom Hooper
Country - UK, USA
Starring - Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried,  Eddie Redmayne
Running Time - 158 minutes

In 19th-century France, Jean Valjean, who for decades has been hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert after he breaks parole, agrees to care for factory worker Fantine's daughter, Cosette. The fateful decision changes their lives forever.

Finally released in the UK after critical and financial success overseas, Tom Hooper's follow up to his Oscar winning The Kings Speech has picked up majorly during the awards season (being nominated for eight Academy awards just last week.) It isn't hard to see why, but despite the hype marketing this film as a sensational cinematic event, I urge you; save your money to see the stage show and in the meantime download the soundtrack, because as it is, Les Misérables just isn't very good.

Written in 1862 Victor Hugo's novel is a series of complex, melodramatic narratives that examines the human condition amidst the backdrop of socially and politically agitated France, eventually culminating in the 1832 June Rebellion. It's largely regarded as one of the best books of the nineteen century and its characters rank amongst some of literature's favourite creations. The stageshow, which has been in production across the world for three decades now, boils the narrative down to a series of impassioned set pieces and emotionally charged ballads. Here in lies the problem with Les Misérables, this approach may work on stage, which has its own established coda in regards to structure, narrative and staging - one that is inherently aimed towards no-holds-bard spectacle. That isn't to say that the songs in Les Misérables aren't any good here, they are. In fact it’s a testament to their quality that it is so easy to become swept up in them despite, well, everything else...

Becausefilm is not bound by the same coda as the impressionistic element of the stage, especially not one that attempts to base itself in a realistically recreated nineteenth century, the narrative must be reworked in order to give the events and characters some actual depth. So little is the amount of respect Tom Hooper has for his audience however that he feels no other need than to deliver astring of set piece moments and one dimensional 'device' characters, and expect us to give them our hearts in return. The connections and conflicts between the central protagonists seem so contrived and coincidental because the film moves from one heart-wrenching emotional high point to the next without balancingthem against smaller, more human moments that would justify the intensity of the songs.  

Thereis no regard for subtlety or ambiguity, no room for capturing the complexities of the characters by visualizing their actions. Instead Hooper tells us how to feel and who to feel it for under the guise of 'passion.' Take the introduction of second act key figure Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne, who simply appears and latches himself to the grown-up Cosette, the film instantly aligns itself with him without giving us ample reason why. Similarly policeman Javert's adherence to the law defies that of logical and emotional contemplation, an explanation (a rather shallow one at that) is given but it is still undermined by the sheer scope of his refusal to acknowledge the events as they present themselves in front of him. The narrative's impact is totally squandered bythis insufficient character development and it makes it difficult to care abouttheir success or failure.

Much has been made of the decision to sing the songs live, allowing the actors to gauge the delivery based on the actions and reactions of those around them, making their performances simultaneously more personal and natural. Whilst not entirely original, it is technically impressive and the likes of Hugh Jackman, an experienced performer, capitalizes on the process to show case his expressive dynamism. Unfortunately this serves to highlight the limitations ofthe rest of the cast, especially the much less convincing Russell Crowe, who has received much criticism for his gruff attempt to bark his way through each number. Needless to say, they're right and he's terrible. An intensely physical and committed performance from Anne Hathaway, gives way to the film’s most exploitative sequence as she scales show-stopper 'I Dreamed a Dream' down to an intimately raw depiction of a broken woman. Hooper smugly revels only in her pain, and it becomes an uncomfortable scene to watch.

The problem that comes with this approach is that Hooper then anchors the camera tothe actors. If he's not intrusively probing them with unflattering close-ups, he presents us with a number of unsuited and frankly boring compositions that fail to excite by lacking any visual flair. An opportunity to explore the surroundings through editing or montage that would reinforce the connections between the characters, or to foreground the contextual social elements thereby giving events and dramatic realizations any sense of weight, is totally lost, leaving the film totally limp. Hooper seems all to aware of this as he attempts to inject energy through unmotivated camera movements and misconceived expressionist angles, illustrating absolutely no understanding of the cinematic rhythm or space. Les Misérables is a film completely lacking any synchronicity.

This becomes indicative of the films many aesthetic and thematic inconsistencies. Sweeping establishing shots have no frame of reference and therefore no relevance. The blockade battle sequences are so poorly staged they have more incommon with a second rate amateur re-enactment from your local historical society. Hooper has neither the confidence to commit entirely to the prominent realistic style that blankets the films dreary proceedings, nor the desire to build upon the more traditional ensemble piece it utilizes to make light ofsome of the films darker elements i.e. working class discontent and prostitution. It fails to convince on any intellectual level. One can summarize the extent of this misconception by raising one probing question; for a film that claims to represent social injustice towards the working class, why arethe poor depicted as physically and emotionally repulsive?  

Les Misérables is a simplistic and manipulative film that reduces complexintertwining narratives and historical social melodrama to a lifeless backdropof self-satisfied, emotionally exploitative set pieces. Each character isreduced to a single function vessel of hollow passion; their development is so stilted, their actions so unjustified that they possess no relatable human qualities whatsoever. Their sole purpose is to con the audience into feeling. These elements may be forgivable on the stage, which has a degree of impressionistic limitations that would serve the nature of spectacle, but this is not the caseon film. Especially not this film, Hooper's direction is completely inept, brimming with such visual and structural incompetence that the film descendsinto the abstract. It has no regard for subtlety, or interest in ambiguity and therefore has no respect for its characters or audience. Despite being the central theme, deliverance only arrives when it bestows onto us an ending. It is then that we are free to leave the cinema and bask in the unceremonious complexities of the mundane.


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