AFI DOCS 2014 (Days 3&4)

Les Misérables

I’ve been somewhat obsessed with Les Misérables ever since I saw the show on Broadway circa 1987. And again in London. And Chicago. And Atlanta. So to say I was looking forward to a big-screen version starring one of my favorite performers, Hugh Jackman, would be a major understatement. In other words, I was an easy sell on this one. It may not be the greatest movie musical of all time, but it is the best in recent memory, despite a few flaws in casting (more on that in a moment).

The Les Miz story, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, is a long one, but here’s the gist: It’s the early 1800s in France and a prisoner named Jean Valjean (aka “24601”) is finally being released on parole after 19 years. His crime: stealing a loaf of bread for starving relatives and then trying to escape.

Bitter and battered, the newly freed Valjean steals silver from a kind Bishop who then sets Valjean on a path toward redemption. Valjean breaks parole in order to start a new life with a new identity. He becomes a respectable mayor and factory owner. But his old life comes back to haunt him when he runs into his prison nemesis, Inspector Javert, who’s determined to put Valjean away for good. Their cat-and-mouse game goes on for years… as Valjean attempts to accomplish one last good deed after another before turning himself in. That includes coming to the aid of the dying Fantine, rescuing and adopting her little girl Cosette, and saving Cosette’s beau Marius during the throes of a bloody Uprising in Paris in 1832. Can you hear the people sing…?

Now, for the casting: Hugh Jackman doesn’t have the strongest voice (it’s a bit nasally) but he more than makes up for it by embracing the role of Jean Valjean with tremendous passion. I wish I could say the same for Russell Crowe as Javert. But the guy looks and sounds downright uncomfortable through much of the movie. Not a good fit.

Anne Hathaway is golden – as in, ‘Most Likely to Win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar’ – for her brief but moving performance as Fantine, a factory worker desperately trying to support her young daughter, Cosette, who lives with ‘an innkeeper man and his wife’. That kooky con-artist duo is played for (somewhat) comedic effect by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who looks suspiciously like her kooky character in the 2007 movie musical Sweeney Todd.

Barks and Redmayne as Eponine and Marius

Samantha Barks is phenomenal in a role that she perfected on the London stage – that of Eponine, the tragic victim of unrequited love. Eponine has the misfortune of falling for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who only has eyes for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).  Seyfried (Mamma Mia) is probably the weakest link in the casting chain. Her voice is shrilly and her performance absolutely pales next to Barks and Redmayne.

As for the rest: The revolutionaries (the ‘empty chairs at empty tables’ dudes) are solid, and their songs help pick up the pace of the second half. The young Daniel Huttlestone makes a fine Gavroche. And I LOVE that veteran actor Colm Wilkinson – who played Valjean in the original Broadway production that I saw circa 1987 – was cast as the Bishop. A classy nod to the quintessential Valjean.

Nothing quite beats Broadway, but the movie offers up something you can’t ever get from the cheap seats, or even the $100+ seats — an opportunity to truly be drawn onto the stage and into the story. A chance to clearly hear and understand the lyrics, and to see the expressions on the actors’ faces, without having to rely on opera glasses or binoculars. To me, that’s what makes this (PG-13) movie so appealing, flaws and all. Director Tom Hooper makes Les Misérables accessible to a mass, mainstream audience. If you’re already a fan, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’ll be singing inside your head the whole way through and will barely miss the lack of intermission despite the film’s 2:40ish running time. If you generally don’t care for musicals, then I can’t promise that you’ll like Les Miz. But consider giving it a shot anyway. At least you’ll only be out 10 bucks instead of 100 (give or take). And if you’re inclined to wait and rent it, keep in mind, this is the type of movie that should be seen in a movie theater first– on a big screen with a good sound system. It does make a difference. I know – I’ve seen it twice already. Third time will be the charm on Xmas Day.

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