A Relentless Pursuit

les-miserables-movieuserpic=moviesOur Christmas Day tradition is to go and see a movie and have Chinese food. This year’s movie was Les Misérables, the movie version of the long-running stage musical that we saw for the first time in July 2011 (the 25-th anniversary production).

If you’re not familiar with the story of Les Miz, here’s the summary I wrote of the musical, slightly adapted for the move:

Les Misérables” (the musical) tells the story of Jean Valjean, also known as prisoner 24601, and his adopted daughter, Cosette. It is based on the Victor Hugo of the same name, but does cut a few elements of the story. The story, which covers 17 years, is so complicated that a synopsis needed to be published in the program (seemingly, a bad sign). Given that, I’m not going to attempt to repeat it here. You can read it yourself in the program, or from the Wikipedia Page on the show. Suffice it to say that the stage production condensed the 1,200 page, five volume novel into two acts of 90 minutes and 65 minutes respectively. The first act coverd Jean Valjean’s release from prison and the interaction with the Bishop at Digne, the mayoral years at Montreiil-Sur-Mer where Valjean meets Fantine and takes responsibility for Cosette, the visit to Montfermeil where Valjean obtains Cosette from the Thénardiers, and the years in Paris where the student revolt begins and Marius and Cosette fall in love… all of this while the police officer Javert is chasing Valjean. The second act is solely in Paris and covered the student revolt, its failure, the subsequent growth of the relationship between Marius and Cosette, the final confrontations of Valjean and Javert, and the final redemption of Valjean. That’s a lot of material to cover—trying to cover so much material and so much time is the reason many great novels, such as Gone With The Wind, never make it to the Broadway stage. It is a testament to the original authors Claude-Michel Schönberg (music) and Alain Boublil (a French-language libretto) that they were able to take the beast of a novel and turn it into something understandable (although, arguably, this is really a full opera presented in the guise of a “musical”—at times, the lines between the two blurs). It is also a testament to the English language adapters, Herbert Kretzmer who developed the English language libretto, and Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer, who discovered the French production in 1982 and has sheparded it ever since (I’ll note Mackintosh’s full bio in the program was: “Produces musicals.”). The production was adapted by Sir Trevor Nunn and John Caird.

The translation does have its weak parts, however, primarily in how manipulative it is for the audience. By this, I mean the show in engineered to be a pleaser, with music that builds and leaves the toes tapping; with moments designed to permit the actors to shine; and with act-ending finales designed to stir the soul. In that sense, it is truly operatic as opposed to dramatic. It it also, at times, emotionally overwrought—again, a hallmark of the more operatic side. To some that is a fatal flaw that reduces the worth of the show, but I do enjoy the general effect.

This synopsis applies to the movie as well. In fact, the movie is only two minutes longer than the stage version, but feels even longer due to the lack of an intermission (oh, how I wish they would bring those back for movies). From reading the comments on some of the reviews, it appears the movie did some judicious trimming of the stage production in a few areas, and added a few clarifying moments. It is really hard to tell unless you have memorized the score, because the director, Tom Hooper, engaged the original authors to adapt the score for the stage. One addition I know of is a new song, “Suddenly”, which was added to capture the moment when Jean ValJean recognizes he is responsible for someone else. The authors indicated this wouldn’t work on stage because it was too close up a moment.

That brings up an important difference between stage and screen. Stage is always at a distance — there are no closeup shots unless you have binoculars with you. The screen can do the closeup, and thus the important of facial nuances and acting in the small is important. Hooper attempted to address this concern through his cinematography, in particular the closeups every time someone was singing. Many times this worked — in particular, it worked well during many of the Anne Hathaway songs. But I felt that he overdid it; it would have been nice to have these close-ups intermixed with some shots at a distance. In particular, I got tired of the many facial closeups that had me thinking about the work involved to stain so many teeth.

Another difference between stage and screen is that stage locations are simple representations of locale and place. Abstractions of a prison, a cathedral, a workhouse, an inn. The screen affords the opportunity to make those locations realistic — to bring the audience up-close with the dirt and the grit and the grime. This, in turn, leads to an intense realism for the story and story elements. Many of the location shots worked quite well (although a few were a bit too CGI-ish — in particular the opening boat sequence and some of the sequences of Javert walking across the wall edge above the water). There were a number of sequences that stuck in my mind. In particular, I really liked the Act I closing sequence (oh, right, no acts)… I mean the sequence for the song “One Day More”. The intercuts between the various actors and locations was a perfect use of cinematography. Credit should go not only to Tom Hooper for this, but to Danny Oliver, the cinematographers, and Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver, the film editors. I also liked the visuals on the sequence where they pulled up and out from the barracades. Both were visually stunning. I also liked the sequence where Valjean tore up his letter of leave and threw it into the wind.

The realism of a motion picture often works against the movie musical. Although easier to do in the era of the soundstage film (read: MGM musicals), the realism of today’s musicals often work against characters turning and bursting out in song. Hooper addressed this by retaining the sung-through approach of the original stage production, creating the conceit that singing is the normal singing. I think this was a smart decision, although it probably turned people away (as an aside, it would be really nice to see a modern remake of Porgy and Bess that did this). Hooper also addressed the common musical problem of lack of emotion in the singing, which comes about because actors record the songs months before they film the action. He actually had the songs sung by the actors during the filming. This worked very well, and brought out extra emotions that were visible in the end film.

The movie really did need an intermission, as movies often did in the 1960s (look at Sweet Charity, for example). It was obvious in the movie where the act break was: the emotion builds up during “One Day More” (the Act I closer) and then… bright sunlight. It was a jarring transition, and really needed the breath of an intermission. I did, however, appreciate their retaining the finale. Closing with the scenes of the barricades, and the stirring music of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is much stronger than ending in the abbey.

Turning to the individual performances: Most were impressive, especially when viewed on the acting scale. Lets start with the leads: As Javert, Russell Crowe acted well… but he really didn’t have the vocal power necessary for the role. Hugh Jackman did much better as Valjean — he acted strongly, and sang quite well (he has had limited Broadway exposure, primarily in “The Boy from Oz” where he played Peter Allen). A number of Jackman’s scenes stick in the mind, especially the closing scene in the church, the scenes with Fantene, and the scene in the sewer.

Turning to the secondary characters, here there were a number of award winner performances. Much has been written about Anne Hathaway‘s performance as Fantene, and I agree with all of them. Her face, her movement, and her expressions during Fantene’s fall were spectacular, and her performance during “I Dreamed a Dream” was just outstanding.  Also visually stunning was Samantha Barks as the grown Éponine. A beautiful face and a beautiful voice — I think I fell in love with that face. As the grown Cosette,
Amanda Seyfried did a wonderful job — she had a wonderful voice in her numbers, and a lovely gentle expression.  It wasn’t just women that were great. I was very impressed with Eddie Redmayne as Marius — he performed well and had a lovely voice.

Now for the children and comic relief: Isabelle Allen did a very nice job as Young Cosette; in particular, she nailed her performance of “Castle in the Clouds”. I was less enamored of Daniel Huttlestone‘s performance as Gavroche: He performed well, but I couldn’t understand why an urchin in France had a heavy cockney aspects. He’d would be great as the lead in Oliver!. For comic relief we had the Thénardiers: Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Both acted and sang reasonably well, and I loved the little nuances during “Master of the House” (although they really changed the reprise). Carter’s career seems to be playing slightly made eccentric women. She’s great at it, but it would be nice to see her in a normal role. (I’ll note that Hooper did cast her in one in his previous film, “The Kings Speech”).

Accents were a major problem in this production. I had trouble understanding why, for a story that ostensibly took place in France, most of the characters had English accents when singing. They dropped into French when they wanted to be course or show station, and of course Gavroche had a cockney accent for some unknown reason. If the movie was to be realistic, they needed to work on the accents.

A few other little notes: Colm Wilkinson, who was one of the original Valjeans on stage, played the Bishop of Digne, which I thought was a nice touch. Another stage actor in a major role was Aaron Tveit as Enjolras; Tveit was most recently one of the leads in Catch Me If You Can.

Does Les Misérables have enough to win over the movie-going audience not used to musicals. Possibly. They will dislike the length and the sung-through aspects (especially those unfamiliar with the stage production), but will probably enjoy the performances. As with the musical, the movie is well-crafted to tug at the emotions and to build to a climax. Music does that so well. If you don’t shed a few tears at the end, I’ll be surprised.

Previews: We had five previews at our performance.

  • Oblivion” is an action-adventure movie with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman, dealing with a war that ended mankind. Looked sorta interesting, but I can’t see shelling out the bucks for it in the theatre. I’ll probably watch it when it shows up on TV.
  • Identity Thief” was one of two Melissa McCarthy comedies previewed. The presence of Jason Bateman should be a warning (although he was OK in Hitch). This looks like the premise could be a bit tiresome on the big screen. Again, it should do well on cable.
  • The Heat” was the second Melissa McCarthy comedy, this time pairing McCarthy with Sandra Bullock. This could be funny, although again it doesn’t seem to be the type of “event” movie that requires the big screen. I’ll probably wait for this one as well.
  • Quartet” looks to be a cute movie for the elderly crowd, but probably won’t score well with audiences. Again, I’ll wait for this one, although my mother-in-law would likely love it.
  • Admission” is a Tiny Fey/Paul Rudd comedy, and looks mildly entertaining. Again, I’m not seeing much that says “big screen” is required.

You’ll probably note that I felt all of these movies could wait for the small screen. There are movies that are so big they require a full screen and audience to immerse you in the story and place. Les Miserables was one; Lincoln was another. Many of the science-fiction movies are that way. But your simple comedies? Often, they don’t need the big screen to make their points.

Dining Notes: It was Christmas. This meant Chinese Food. Last night, we ended up at Lotus Inn in Woodland Hills. They were overloaded and understaffed last night. This meant that the service was a bit slower. As for the food, there were strengths and weaknesses. The Orange Chicken and Lemon Chicken were particularly good, as was the Chicken-Corn soup. The Chicken with Garlic was more problematic, as the menu didn’t make clear the use of bell peppers and mushrooms in the dish. I ordered a BBQ Pork appetizer. While tasty, it wasn’t up to the standards of Chinatown Cha Su — it had a heavier BBQ sauce (although not Western) when a lighter drier touch was required. My wife had the Singapore Noodles, and found them a little salty. Still, when compared to the previous year’s Hot Wok, it was much better.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  We currently have no movies scheduled or anticipated in the next 6 months. Our 2012 entertainment year ends next week with Other Desert Cities at the Taper on December 29. Turning to 2013… January starts with Anything Goes” at the Ahmanson on January 6. January 12 is currently held for the MoTAS Shabbat, although I may book something in the evening. January 19 is currently open, as Erin returns to Berkeley the next day; supposedly, there may be an event at REP of interest that evening. January 26 is being held for the just announced production of Triassic Parq–The Musical at the Chance Theatre in Orange County. February will start with the first play of the REP season, “Putnam County Spelling Bee“.  February 9 is being held for “Backbeat” at the Ahmanson. February 16 brings “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and the last weekend of February is currently open. March starts with “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” at the Colony. After a break for Fogcon (although I may do something here), theatre picks up with “Catch Me If You Can” at Broadway LA/Pantages on March 16 and “Boeing Boeing” at REP East on March 23. March may also bring “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson, most likely on March 30. April will bring the Southern California Renaissance Faire (huzzah for the $15 Holidazzle sale), “Grease” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” at REP East. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).


5 Replies to “A Relentless Pursuit”

    1. That was also one of the conceits that Fosse did in Caberet — the musical numbers worked because he retained only the numbers that took place in the Caberet. In general, movies that have been too close to the stage production have been only so-so in box office (witness Rent and Phantom, and perhaps even Hairspray). Others that either resurrected much older pieces (Dreamgirls) or did something unique (Chicago) worked better. As I recall, Evita (which was sung-through) did so-so, but that could just be because of Madonna. So far, Les Miz is doing good.

  1. In your original review you used the phrase “the final redemption of Valjean”. What is he redeeming himself of?

    I found myself more moved by the final redemption of Javert – a mean so Lawful Neutral that the one act of good he does destroys him.

    And Marius was a fool for choosing Cosette over Eponine, certain death on the barricades notwithstanding.

      1. I suppose his ideas of redemption and mine differ greatly. I would have thought he’d redeemed himself in the presumed good he did as mayor, or in taking care of Cosette after all those years, or even of sparing the life of Javert.

        Although I’m willing to admit “redemption” probably has a different meaning in theater terms than in philosophical ones.

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