Friday, February 1, 2013

Oscars 2013: Les Misérables

Eponine (Samantha Barks) and Marius at the barricades
Les Misérables (U.K., 2012) directed by Tom Hooper, 2 hr., 37 minutes

Nominated for Eight Oscars
Best Actor In a Leading Role
Best Actress In a Supporting Role
Best Picture
Best Costume Design
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Best Music (Original Song)
Best Production Design
Best Sound Mixing

This is the beginning of a month of reviews of Oscar nominated films ... with, perhaps a slight emphasis on the smaller films but first we will start with a blockbuster.

If weeping copiously throughout a film is an indication of its artistic value, then, yes, Les Misérables is a good film as this is exactly what I did during, and after, viewing it recently. This film pushes so many emotional buttons it is difficult to remain objective about its artistic worth: the fallen Fantine's (Anne Hathaway) love for her daughter Cossette who has to resort to prostitution to feed her child; a good man's persecution under unjust laws (Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean) by a harsh law official Javert (Russell Crowe); the revolutionary fervor of the June rebellion in Paris in 1832; and, romantic love between the orphaned Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) and the revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

If I felt emotionally manipulated at whom do I point the incriminating finger? Victor Hugo, the novelist? Tom Hooper, the director? The lyricists? Perhaps all three ... although I do not recall these emotions when I read the book or saw the musical many years ago.

The movie is undeniably beautiful; the effects are impressive if over-wrought particularly in depicting the manning of the barricades in the rebellion of 1832 or when Javert ends his life by plunging into a surging river. The costuming is for the most part perfect: sumptuous and elegant. The music inspires and yet overwhelms as well frantically inspiring romantic or patriotic feeling. The camera work often ecstatically soars into the blue after particularly dramatic scenes.

I struggled with the performances of Hathaway as Fantine and Jackman as Valjean whom I always find artificial, solidly belonging to the "Look, I'm acting!" school of drama. Jackman is too young, too healthy looking, to be referred to as "the old man" Valjean. However, both have received both critical praise and award nominations. Only Eddie Redmayne evoked real emotion for me particularly in the scene where he weeps for his lost comrades. 

Some of the blame lies with Hooper as a director. The pace is brisk, too brisk at times, but with the sprawling nature of the book and film topping more than 2 and 1/2 hours there must have been a sense of urgency in presenting all the pertinent bits of the plot. 

Other aesthetic choices rankle ... why dress Fantine's fellow prostitutes like obscene dolls in surreal makeup replete with foul and ribald dispositions? Why not represent them as they likely were - as desperate women with no other options but to live off the streets? If only the revolutionaries were not so perfectly groomed and handsome rather than the dirty ragamuffins that I imagined them to be. Could Javert and Valjean have been more nuanced rather than literally representing two extremes of the moral spectrum - utter villain and unimpeachable saint? 

In any event, I give this film three teardrops out of five.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

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