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Les Misérables - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Les Misérables
Directing: A-
Acting: A
Writing: A-
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects: B+
Music: A-

These days, movie promoters love to call the latest film "groundbraking." Case in point: The Hobbit, with its 3-D 45 frames per second, which really doesn't work to its advantage. When I saw that movie and was surprised by the inflated ticket prices, the cashier said the movie was "unique." It was unique, all right -- but kind of in the wrong ways.

Not so with Les Misérables. This is a movie that feels new, and for once, in a good way. This is a musical, yes, but the actors sang their songs live on set, complete with Broadway-style headsets to pick up their singing voices -- which were digitally removed post-production. This is a very, very rare case of less-is-more: tinkering with the images digitally, at least in this particular way, really makes the movie the great work of art that it is. This is arguably the greatest leap forward in the history of movie musicals. Fore the first time, the actors are acting, rather than lip syncing. It was a risk that paid off.

Much has been made of Anne Hathaway's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream." It's all justified. That one song is arguably all the excuse you need to see this movie. It's got Oscar-clip written all over it. And it isn't even Oscar-bait. It's a scene that serves the story completely, and after seeing Hathaway's delivery, it's near impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. Her performance is inspired.

If you're like me, with only a cursory knowledge of the original stage play, you'll be surprised by the briefness of Anne Hathaway's part (there's little doubt she will be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar). Although she re-appears near the very end, her part is nearly entirely only within the first hour of the film. And this movie goes on for 157 minutes.

The story also spans a wide range of years. The only two characters to be seen through all those years are Jean Valjean (a stellar Hugh Jackman), the man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread; and Javert (a surprisingly solid, for a musical, Russell Crowe), the authority pursuing him for breaking parole. It sure seems like a lot of effort for nothing more than stealing bread. I guess this is why the French Revolution happened. Do these people really not understand the disparity between the cost of incarcerating a man for stealing bread, and the cost of one stolen loaf of bread? I guess not.

Javert is such a principled man, though, this is sort of like a dark version of Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Slave of Duty." There's a fascinating dynamic here, with Jean Valjean being so pure of heart, a true underdog hero; and Javert, who is not a bad man, per se, but has absolute faith in the law of the land. Thus, he obsessively pursues a man who broke parole but did nothing worse than steal bread. Evidently he doesn't see that there are bigger fish to fry.

And there is so, so much more going on in this story. Fantine (Hathaway) is the worker thrown out of Jean Valjean's factory while his back was turned -- a factory he runs under an assumed name after being elected mayor of the town. He feels guilty when he discovers he is complicit in the ruin of Fantine's life: she is destitute after selling everything from her hair to her teeth to her body to support a daughter being taken care of by who she assumes to be friends.

This money is sent to said "friends," played with Les Misérables's welcome and singular comic relif by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. These two treat Fantine's daughter, Cosette, like Cinderella while doting on their own daughter, Éponine.

But this story spans so many years that we see Éponine and Cosette both as children and as young adults. Cosette is played as a child by Isabelle Allen and as an adult by Amanda Seyfried. Both have stunning singing voices -- a welcome surprise given that Seyfried was recently seen in the likes of Mama Mia! and Red Riding Hood. Éponine as a child gets no lines, but as an adult she's portrayed by newcomer Samantha Barks, who I fear will be overlooked due to all the major talent surrounding her. But she should not be discounted either. Honestly, for such an ensemble cast, the performances are top-notch all around, a true rarity in a film with this many characters.

It's easy to see where the intermission might be in the Broadway play version of this story: in the second half, the children are much older. And now Éponine is pining for young Marius (My Week with Marylin's Eddie Redmayne, but it is an unrequited love because he is in love with Cosette. In any other movie, Jean Valjean would be the protective father figure serving as a barrier to this relationship; but here, he sacrifices much of himself to make sure they end up together -- because his top priority is Cosette's happiness. All for the sake of Fantine.

As you can see, there's a lot going on here. And if there is any one challenge to Les Misérables, it's that 95% of the dialogue is sung. Very few movie musicals are like this; the most recent example that comes to mind is Evita (1996), which was okay but not great. The awkwardness of so much communication in song is really the one and only thing preventing Les Misérables from achieving greatness. But really? It's close enough. The musicality is easily overlooked for two reasons: the incredible performances, and the fact that the music itself is great.

If you're not into musicals, I wouldn't recommend this. Otherwise, this is a memorable cinematic experience, well worth the time and cost. There's a fair number of CGI wide shots of Paris that are clearly artificial, but that's nothing but a quibble. Honestly, it's easy to get completely lost in this story. It's tempting to say that it's thanks solely to Jackman and Hathaway -- both of whom are award-worthy -- but really it's thanks to everyone involved, from the actors to the designers to the sound editors to director Tom Hooper. This is just a wonderful cinematic experience all around.

Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway breathe fresh life in to <i>Les Miserables</i>.

Overall: A-
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