Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Les Miserables

I was approaching the highly anticipated adaptation of the musical Les Misérables with some caution.  It’s my second favorite musical after Phantom and I know it almost as well; the Phantom movie from 2004 is good but hardly a replacement for the stage show.  I’m also quite fond of the 1998 non-musical version of Les Mis with Liam Neeson as Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Javert.  While I enjoyed the film, I have to say I don’t think it translates flawlessly from the stage.  It’s a bit on the long side.  The actors work hard, but some of the magic is missing.

Certainly the film has the opportunity to shoot some things visually we’d never be able to see on stage.  I’m not sure, though, that the film really lived up to its potential.  Certainly, the opening was a surprise.  To actually see the convicts in the dockyards of Toulon was a surprise and a visual treat.  The 1998 non-musical Les Mis did have a stage-setting moment of a quarry rather than a dockyard, which gave atmospheric importance to this section of the story.  This version is probably more stirring[1] but raises expectations unnaturally high.  One of the reasons (I think) Les Mis works so well is that it can conjure places and eras we’ll have never seen on a darkened stage with minimal sets: the lauded turntable, etc.  It is not necessary to see the degradation of the chain-gang convicts because “Look Down” sufficiently expresses their feelings.  After all, given the decision made for the actors to sing in situ, it must be extremely difficult to drag a ship into harbor and sing at the same time.  

I had similarly mixed feelings about Valjean’s Soliloquy.  After I got over my initial, unexpected joy at seeing Colm Wilkinson (the original London stage Valjean) in a cameo as the Bishop of Digne, I wondered why the Soliloquy had been staged in such an uncomfortable, claustrophobic fashion.  If that was the director’s intention, I suppose it worked; I can understand why Hugh Jackman said in interview that this project terrified and drained him.  Being in almost unrelenting close-up during this demanding song, performing live to the camera, is very different (I would imagine) from normal film acting AND the way this song is performed on stage.  Setting it merely in the Bishop’s chapel as Valjean repents over the stolen candlesticks seemed a true waste of resources.  The filmic scope improved a bit when Valjean began to walk through the mountains on his way to starting his life anew (to the strains of the connecting music between the Soliloquy and “At the End of the Day”).  As for Jackman’s singing . . . I had had no worries on that score because I had heard him sing a few musical songs in the past.  He is a certainly a solid tenor with the ability to reach up to Valjean’s high notes; I’m not that keen on his vibrato.  For one thing, if you listen to John Barrowman’s, Michael Ball’s, and Jackman’s versions of “Sunset Boulevard,” (as Aya and I did) you’ll be in no doubt who is the best singer (hint:  it’s Barrowman).  At least, this is my opinion and my personal preference for musicals.  I think Jackman made a good movie Valjean, so good for him for making the professional and personal leap into such a challenging role.  But his performance wasn’t revelatory to the point that I thought, “OMG, I’ve got to buy the soundtrack.”   

One thing that surprised me in this film version of Les Mis was how well the ensemble pieces worked.  They are a staple on stage, of course, and have survived more or less intact on screen.  Film gives the chance for close ups rather than choreography, and that works quite well in “At the End of the Day.”  The 1998 non-musical Les Mis was filmed primarily in the Czech Republic and used that to stand in for the dark, wintry Montreuil-sur-Mer, on which it lingered for a lot of its duration.  This version of Montreuil was similar, though once again it brought into focus the connection with the sea.  (Obviously there are always sailors in “Lovely Ladies” who sing “Seven weeks at sea can make you hungry for a poke” but for some reason it never sunk in that Fantine might have joined the ranks of seaside whores, quite literally “making money in your sleep” in old ship carcasses.) 

With a cinematic flick of the wrist, Valjean is made even more sympathetic by virtue of the fact that his (probably) natural inclination to hear out Fantine’s side of the story before letting the Foreman dismiss her was interrupted by the appearance of Javert.  This mirrored, again, the 1998 version, which placed a heavy emphasis on Valjean being flustered and scared by the sudden reappearance of Javert.  It also allowed for the transposition of “I Dreamed a Dream” until after Fantine had sold her hair, her teeth (I’d forgotten about that part; how awful!), Cosette’s locket, and was deep into her degradation.  Valjean and the cart was necessarily brief; “Lovely Ladies” worked surprisingly well on film.  Anne Hathaway has proven her mettle in surprising ways in 2012.  A few minor points regarding the way she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” annoyed me, but the once again claustrophobic approach seemed highly appropriate this time.  In keeping Fantine in ECU throughout this song, Hathaway was able to dredge up an extraordinary palette of emotion.  I had thought perhaps film might permit us some flashbacks, even if they were very vaguely painted into the background of this hollowed out old ship carcass, but the filmmakers did not decide to do that.

I’m not sure that we’ve ever been given a legitimate reason that Valjean is out near the docks when Bamatabois attacks Fantine—this version seems to suggest he’s out delivering alms to the poor.  Javert is, of course, on his beat.  I was surprised to see that this version used the version Hugo originally wrote, apparently from anecdote, of Bamatabois stuffing snow down Fantine’s bodice.  This trio is very nice, especially Hathaway.  “Who Am I?” is sung, in my opinion, better than the Soliloquy, though the last few bars, which work in a whirlwind fashion on stage as Valjean speeds by coach to the trial to clear the wronged man, stretch credulity a bit.  The onlookers, instead of giving weight to “M’sieur Maire”’s testimony, think that he’s gone mad. 

I’ve not yet said anything about Russell Crowe as Javert.  He was the actor I was most worried about translating into the singing role.  I am aware he is (or was?) in a rock band, but as we know with Gerard Butler, that does not necessarily translate into musical theatre excellence.  I really like the way the 1998 Les Mis handled the Fantine-Valjean-Javert thing.  It’s the only version I’m aware of in which there is a hinted, completely unspoken romance between Valjean and Fantine, and while I’m sure that’s not canon, it was handled so well—making the scene of confrontation when Javert came to arrest Valjean, taunting the dying Fantine—extremely moving.  Of course there was nothing of the sort in this version, and although Hathaway was perfectly good, she seemed very suddenly to die[2] (how strange that THIS was where they took the opportunity to use hallucination/flashback!). 

For obvious reasons, “Confrontation” is probably my favorite song in all of Les Mis.  I love the counterpoint.  But back to Javert.  Geoffrey Rush made a somewhat vicious, self-righteous Javert—which was great—but he did not have the benefit of song.  Javert, except when given the device of singing, is not the sort of fellow who would express his feelings or even his thoughts aloud—hence why he was given a deputy in the 1998 version, so he could have at least some dialogue.  Crowe, therefore, makes a very different sort of Javert.  He seems constantly in a state of shock, or else withdrawal from the world.  Despite the fact that Valjean demonstrates his colossal strength, it is not the same physical sense we get when Liam Neeson is playing Valjean and Rush is playing Javert—Crowe looks like he could beat up Jackman (perhaps), so when Valjean sings, “I am warning you, Javert / I’m a stronger man by far / There is power in me yet / My race is not yet run,” we sort of have to take his word for it. 

In any case, I really liked this version of “Confrontation.”  Well-played, well-sung.  Crowe is no Philip Quast musically, but his baritone was much more pleasant and easy on the ear than I expected and has a sort of nice “round” sound to it. 

Perhaps the most successful rewriting-for-screen in the whole movie took place at the Inn.  Set some time around December 6th (as the St Nicholas in the sleigh suggests), the environs were convincingly recreated.  For the first time, it really felt like we were in 19th century France.  Sacha Baron Cohen really surprised me by playing Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, and Thénardier is a very similar role.  “Master of the House” surprised me by having me roaring with laughter—visually, cinematically, this song worked better than any other in the film.  The “Waltz of Treachery” was also very good; even if this Valjean didn’t outwit the Thénardiers quite the way the Neeson one did, he certainly kept his wits about him and didn’t let them hoodwink or rob him. 

Here—in a very Christmas-y sort of insertion—we had the new song, “Suddenly,” which was very easy to pick out.  It’s sweet and all, but hardly necessary.  

One of the more thrilling moments in the 1998 film is Javert chasing Valjean and Cosette across the Paris Wall, which to a point was recreated here. 

With filming transposed to Paris, the scale was increased even further.  With a winning actor to play Gavroche, the crowd scenes in the ensemble number worked very well.  I was surprised to see Marius’ grandfather introduced (necessary, I suppose, for later scenes).  The chaos on the streets and in the students’ tavern was well-done.  I liked the short glimpses we got of Marius’ garret to which Éponine was always trailing.  Of all the leads, Samantha Barks is the least well-known.  I love Éponine and have always regarded her role as the one I would most like to sing.  It was tragic but understandable that the 1998 movie eliminated her entirely (the better to make Cosette, played by Clare Danes, sympathetic—which it did).  Barks is perfectly good as Éponine in all senses, almost making you wish the character had more screen time.  To see real (well, “real”) rain, for the first time, during “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” was kind of thrilling.

I do have to give a mention to “Stars[3].”  Moved from its traditional place in the libretto, it used the film medium to its fullest, giving us a gorgeous (no doubt CGI-ed) view of Javert singing from the rooftops of Paris, looking out at Nôtre-Dame and walking, very literally, the straight and narrow, in a deliberate set up for his Soliloquy later.  It was beautifully sung and I enjoyed it.      

Eddie Redmayne may not compare to Hans Matheson as far as looks go, but he has a very strong singing voice and I thought he had enough charisma and youth[4] to be Marius.  His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” brought tears to my eyes (though once again I was a bit disappointed at the literal quality of the staging).  “Red and Black” was a beautiful song sung by some great young singers.  The fairy tale quality of Valjean and Cosette’s cottage and garden was beautifully brought to life, emphasizing Cosette’s frustrated girlishness and Valjean’s difficulty in parenting skills even more than the 1998 version.  Cosette can be a thankless role as there can be little to bring to the part—like Johanna in Sweeney Todd, she has a lovely and/or piercing first soprano but also some of the loveliest song in the whole oeuvre.  Interestingly, unlike Johanna who has “Green Finch and Linnet Bird,” Cosette never really has a soliloquy, making her more difficult to really know than Éponine.  In any case, Amanda Seyfried had a very pure voice and warm diction, making her Cosette quite loveable. 

Once again, I found the staging of “In My Life” / “A Heart Full of Love” rather strange.  I was trying to think of a comparable song in Phantom, and in fact the one I was thinking of, the trio in the Graveyard scene from Act II, was made a non-singing scene in the 2004, perhaps for this very reason of staging.  The constant use of cutting and close-ups made for a rather strange quality during songs like this, where—in my old-fashioned and probably stage-bound opinion—all three singers should be in shot.  Occasionally this approach worked really well, but sometimes . . . not.

Right about the time of Lamarque’s funeral, I began to wonder how much longer the movie was going to go on and whether it would be truncating any of the songs or changing the ending slightly in order to sum things up a bit.  Really, it did not much do this.  It lurched on, making those unprepared in the movie theatre wonder when it might ever end.  All of the sequences during the barricade scenes worked quite well on film and communicated the senselessness of it all in a way that the stage version sometimes can gloss over.  “One Day More,” in fact, worked very well on film—for the most part, it’s suited to rapid cuts and shots of people moving—as demonstrated on the affectionate parody back in 2008 which anticipated Obama’s election.                

“You are wrong, and always have been wrong,” Valjean sings to Javert, sparing his life in the barricades.  “I’m a man, no worse than any man / And there are no conditions / No bargains or petitions / There’s nothing that I blame you for / You’ve done your duty, nothing more.”  This was a beautiful moment in this film.  I’m always a bit worried at how a singer will take to “Bring Him Home”; the key is so high!  Nevertheless, it was a moving song, even if slightly prosaically shot.  I wondered, ultimately, how Enjolras’ death on the barricades in that extremely stylized turntable moment was going to work onscreen.  Okay, so he fell out a window.  There was, however, a subtle moment that meant a lot.  In surveying the dead after all of the conspirators/patriots had been shot, Javert pinned a medal on the dead Gavroche.  This brought so much shading and nuance to this character—it was almost shocking.

The sewers, however, were visceral in every sense, though disappointing not to have “Dog Eats Dog” (though, with so many more songs to sing, I can understand why it was cut).  I found myself wondering, after Javert’s suicide, what more they were going to include.  Dazzling as Marius and Cosette’s wedding was, amusing as the (truncated) “Beggars at the Feast” was, I wondered if it might all have been summed up and condensed down.  With so many characters dead and the only real point of interest being Marius finding out that Valjean saved his life (big whoop), if I were not familiar with the musical, I would be quite frustrated and bored. 

However, Valjean’s retreat into the convent was quite moving.  “Alone, I wait in the shadows / I count the hours til I can sleep / Cosette stood by / It made her weep to know I’d die / Alone, at the end of my day / On this wedding night I pray / Take these children, my Lord / to Thy embrace / and show them grace.”  Lovely and satisfying (musically) as all of this is, dramatically it certainly seems an anti-climax.  I did wonder how on Earth the film was going to deal with the spectral appearance of Fantine—it did so quite literally, allowing Valjean and us only to see her as he died and was led off to the barricades.  The final chorus is extremely rousing on stage and makes some sense, but as a finale to a film just never quite achieves what it’s meant to.  You feel like singing along, and yet it is extremely hard to take at face value the souls (or whatever) singing in the streets of Paris, and you become, instead, aware that they are actors filming a movie.  Whereas on stage, the music never stops and it seems utterly natural to use the musical cues and characters in a symbolic way to end the show. 
Well, that’s my 2¢ anyway.

[1] My heart did swell in joy when they actually used the Overture, something sadly neglected in the movie version of Sweeney Todd.
[2] I was shocked thinking that very few films would allow a major character to die 1/3 of the way through like this!
[3] Again, one of my favorite songs from Les Mis but also indelibly associated in my memory with the Forbidden Broadway parody “Scars,” in which the Javert actor sings, “Once I played Hamlet / Now night after night / I jump off a plastic bridge . . .” 
[4] Joel Schumacher famously cast Emmy Rossum as Christine in Phantom because he believed only a very young naïve girl would do what Christine did.  Marius has some similar growing up to do, which he does.

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