Thursday, January 3, 2013

Tom Hopper | Les Misérables

look down
by Douglas Messerli
Claude Michel Schönberg and Alan Boubil (book, based on the novel by Victor Hugo and their original musical in French), Herbert Kretzmer (lyrics, with additional text by James Fenton), William Nicholson (screenplay), Tom Hopper (director) Les Misérables / 2012

Tom Hopper’s grand operetta, brought to film from the extraordinarily successful Broadway musical, begins with an improbable scene in which prisoners are forced to pull by rope a huge ship into dry dock while they sing of their humble position in life, “Look Down,” averting their glances into the eyes of their torturers to prevent themselves from further punishment. Among the men is the hero of this work, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who as the ship is finally pulled in, is forced by his arch enemy, the head prison guard, Jauvert (Russell Crowe), to single-handedly pull in the huge flag, which, like Christ bearing the cross of his own death, he delivers it up to his torturer.

      Of course, in beginning with the concept of “looking down”—the position in society in which most of the “miserable” characters of this piece exist—the musical also posits its opposite, as Valjean—freed soon after by Jauvert, but haunted through the early part of the film by his parole documents—strives to “look up.”  Particularly through the religiously inspired scenes, as Valjean aspires to gain faith, the songs switch to inspirational-like ditties, the most notable of which is the poor former factory-worker turned prostitute Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) paean to life as it might have been, “I Dreamed a Dream,” possibly the best song of the film. She dies soon after.

     So is the pattern of this film revealed, as various figures, including the evil Jauvert, vertiginously walking a high ledge overlooking the city, shout-out in chant-like pieces the necessity of “looking down,” while the score alternates with quieter pleas for beauty and grace. That pattern, indeed, is at the center of this sprawling work’s various directions, as some characters seek out love (Valjean, Marius, Cosette, Éponine), others freedom through revolution, and still others look into the deep depths from which they have risen or in which they, like Madame Thénardier and her husband, remain. Unfortunately, it seems, neither the original musical nor this film version, offers anything in between. Les Misérables, it seems, are unhappy because they live at the extremes, phantom beings out of some vast tapestry that keeps weaving and unweaving itself, each figure chasing or running from one another like laboratory rats.

     If anything, director Tom Hopper—perhaps in an attempt to maintain the popular theatricality of a work seen on stage by millions of adoring fans—further exaggerates the dichotomous pattern of the work, lifting his fussbudget camera to the towering heights only to drop into the lowest depths (the sewer scene is hard to endure), pulling away momentarily from his players only to rush forward, as the figures, like Sunset Bouelvard’s Nora Desmond, call out that they are ready for their “close ups.” Although one can commend Hopper, it appears, for asking the singers to perform their songs in real time, the constant placement of his camera up and close creates such an artificial feeling that, except for in the large group scenes, we must wonder at times whether these characters have torsos and legs.

      In fact, they don’t. Like so many rag dolls, each fills the large cinema screens with tears and perspiration running down his or her face—or even worse, as in the “Lovely Ladies” scene, with macabre patches of red, white, and black paint swabbed across her eyes, cheek, and nose. At times, particularly in the comic scenes involving the Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen) it is almost as if the performers have escaped from another movie, in this case, Burton’s Sweeney Todd, to suddenly reappear in Les Misérables. At least this dour film of eternal suffering has these few comic moments!

       Allowing his international cast to use their own dialects, from the Aussie-vocalizations of Jackman, the Kiwi shout-outs of Crowe, and the apparently Cockney utterings of the Dickensian-like David Huddelstone (as Gavroche)—all of whom are supposedly French—Hopper creates a mish-mash of character-types that, once more, squeeze any humanity from them.

       Hopper’s over-the-top direction is particularly unfortunate for Jackman—whose presence in this film was, in part, what drew me to the theater—because his full and rich baritone voice on display in his stage-version of Oklahoma! here seems considerably strained, perhaps due to the fact that he was forced to lose 30 pounds in order to appear like a man who has just spent nineteen years in chains. As I’ve suggested, since Javert does little more that howl, I have no idea whether Crowe can sing or not.

While I’m at it, I should admit that I came to Les Misérables with a bit of a chip on my shoulder, mostly because I see the lumbering and bumbling musical score, similar to Cats, as being responsible, in part, for the death of the American Broadway musical. Yes, both works have moments of lilting melodies, but the unimaginative tunes of the rest, combined with never ending series of banally rhymed couplets nearly drive me to despair. If any tears flowed from eyes—and a few did; I’ve admitted elsewhere I’m a sentimentalist and Les Misérables is sentimentality determined to try to break your heart—I might almost attribute them to the pain inflicted by its music and lyrics. It is hard  to imagine, for example, the following passage is sung:

          Javert: Now Prisoner 24601, your time is up and your parole's begun.
                        You know what that means?
          Jean Valjean: Yes, it means I'm free.
          Javert: No.
           [hands him a yellow paper]
          Javert: Follow to the letter your itinerary, this badge of shame you wear
                        until you die. It warns that you're a dangerous man.
          Jean Valjean: I stole a loaf of bread. My sisters child was close to death, and
                        we were  starving...
          Javert: And you will starve again unless you learn the meaning of the law!

          Jean Valjean: I've learnt the meaning of those nineteen years; a slave of
                                  the law.
          Javert: Five years for what you did. The rest because you tried to run,
                       yes 24601...
          Jean Valjean: My name is Jean Valjean!
          Javert: And I'm Javert! Do not forget my name. Do not forget me, 24601.

All right opera has its strange moments, if translated into English, but this is just insufferable dialogue!

Or consider this inane rhyme, repeated throughout the song:

          Marious: In my life, there is someone who touches my life. Waiting near...
          Éponine: Waiting here...    

"Life/life," "near/here." I could do better in my sleep, and have!
     Despite that, however, I must admit the orchestration was quite effective.

And then, there were those wonderful surprises, such as the performance throughout of Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a handsome young man with a glorious voice, particularly well employed in “Emply Chairs at Empty Tables,” as he sings of the passing of his revolutionary partners. Quite moving also was Samatha Bark’s rendering, despite the drip-drop of rain down her face, of “On My Own.” Throughout, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette sang, although quite waveringly, beautifully.
      But in the end, none of them could save Hopper’s up and down, in and out cinematic eye-balling of this war-horse of a crowd-pleaser.  My comments, surely, will mean little to those thousands of devotees of this over-the-top display of loving and hating types, and even I did not share the feelings of a slightly grumpy elderly man who left the theater loudly muttering, “That was most boring movie I’ve ever seen.” And although I’ve heard news of thunderous applauses in local movie theaters, no one applauded at the early morning showing I attended. I might have simply called Hopper’s film, “ponderous.” It’s hard to “Hear the People Sing” without a real human being in sight.

Los Angeles, January 3, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position  [England] (February 2013).

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