Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Law is An Ass

I don't envy casting directors charged with making movie musicals. There's a balance to be struck: good actor or good singer? On stage, the choice is easy: go with the singer. The movie camera, unfortunately, is merciless. It will showcase every poor acting choice because it can get so close to the actor that you can pick out their individual pores. Obviously, you want both an actor and a singer, but sometimes, the imperatives of commercial filmmaking work against you. You can see this dilemma all over the film version of Les Misérables (2012, directed by Tom Hooper). None of names above the marquee are particularly strong singers, but this is a story that may not necessarily require it. The filmmakers have leaned toward actors for Les Miz, and that's the right choice. This is a film that ebbs and flows on tragedy and emotion, and the movies are better at doing that with images than they are with song. Given the choices this film makes along those lines, I found myself suggesting to my companion that this is a film that might actually work as a silent film. Not that anyone would stand for that. The stage play's mammoth fan base would certainly riot.

Note: I haven't seen the stage play, though I've seen previous screen versions and I tried reading the book when I was younger. I think I got 120 pages in before I gave up--the younger me was sometimes impatient with classics, particularly fifteen hundred page classics.

The story follows Jean Valjean, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread for his starving sister and her child. When the film opens, he's slaving in a shipyard, at the end of a nineteen year sentence, of which only five were for the crime. The rest were for attempting to escape. He is overseen by the stern, rigid Javert, who delivers Valjean his parole, one that will follow him the rest of his life because he's "a dangerous man." Unable to find work, Valjean is taken in by a churchman, who looks the other way when Valjean attempts to steal the sacramental silver. The churchman gives him his freedom, causing him a kind of existential crisis. He vows to make something of the opportunity. He breaks his parole and rebuilds his life. Nine years later, we find him as a wealthy man, owner of a textile factory and the mayor of his new city. In this factory works Fantine, who sends her every franc to the innkeepers who are raising her daughter. Accused of being a "fallen" woman, she's hounded by her co-workers and fired by the foreman for refusing his advances. She takes to the streets and makes money the only ways available to her. Valjean, meanwhile, is reintroduced to Javert, who suspects him of living a false identity. When Javert catches another man and accuses him of being Jean Valjean, Valjean is confronted by another existential dilemma: reveal himself and be condemned or remain silent and be damned. While he ponders this, he and Javert come across Fantine in the streets. Fantine throws Valjean's piety in his face: where was he when she was in need. Valjean in turn vows to make good, and when she dies, he takes on the responsibility of Fantine's daughter, Cosette. Beset by guilt, he reveals himself to the court and flees to rescue Cosette from the horrid Thenardiers, the thieving innkeepers who are keeping her. Javert is on his heels. Another decade passes. Jean Valjean and Cosette are living in Paris, where there is revolution in the air. Valjean is still a hunted, haunted man, and the two of them, though wealthy, never stay long in one place. Cosette has caught the eye of Marius, the son of a wealthy family, but a revolutionary none the less. The two fall in love from afar. This is a heartache to Eponine, the daughter of the Thenardiers, now a camp follower of the revolution. She's devoted to Marius, who she loves deeply. She knows, however, that she can never have him. She acts as a go between between Marius and Cosette (who she knew as a child). Jean Valjean is once again identified by Javert, and prepares to escape once more, but the June Revolution explodes, and Valjean realizes that Marius is key to Cosette's happiness. There's no escape for him this time, as he goes down to the barricades to save Marius. In the process, encounters Javert once more, who is as inflexible as ever...

There's a lot to digest in Les Misérables. Victor Hugo ruminated on the moral problems in the story for 1900 pages. This movie crams it all into two and a half hours (the filmmakers intended it to be four hours). Like many mammoth nineteen century novels, this is a digressionary work, almost a picaresque. It tends to sprawl. The upside of the novel is that its central narrative, Jean Valjean's decades-long flight and Javert's relentless pursuit, is so compelling that you can hang almost anything on it. The downside is that whatever you append to that story is going to be a pale shadow in comparison. This film falls into that trap.

The film this most reminds me of is Tim Burton's adaptation of Sweeny Todd (and not just because Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter are in both films or because both films are modern opera/musicals). Like Sweeny Todd, this is a movie that posits a pair of idealized young lovers as a counter narrative to its grim central story. In both films, the young female lover is a cipher. In both films, the young man is struck dumb with love at first glance. There's nothing else connecting them. Sweeny Todd, bless its black little heart, has the wit to kill off its idealized young woman. Les Miz, by contrast, stirs the pot with a love triangle, and suffers from it because Eponine is so much more interesting a character than Cosette. The film compounds this with the fact that Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine, is the strongest singer in the cast and frankly blows Amanda Seyfried's Cosette off the screen. Watching this unfold at the end of the film had me shaking my head. I'm told by my partner who has seen the whole stage show (of which this is an abridgement) that this is a problem with the original production, too. The focus on Marius and Cosette at the end of this film made me want to check my watch. Since I don't wear one, I endured.

If this makes it sound like I didn't like Les Miz, well, you're wrong there. I'm merely lamenting that this isn't a more integrated film, because what's good about it is very good indeed. It's hard to fumble this material if you have even a modicum of talent, and there's talent aplenty on hand here. Hugh Jackman's performance as Jean Valjean is revelatory, way beyond the range of any performance he's ever given on film before. Anne Hathaway is much the same, though in a more limited role. She's not on screen long enough to have the same impact, but her scenes have an abject horror to them that amplifies the pathos. Both actors are the beneficiaries of director Tom Hooper's largesse: he lets them have their heads in long unflinching takes. Hathaway's big number is famously uncut and it's so raw that leaves an indelible impression that may end up defining her career as much as or more than the cat suit she wore in The Dark Knight Rises. Jackman, upon whom the movie is centered, gets a couple of such scenes. The best of them has him contemplating the meaning of his deliverance, a scene in which the camera is content to follow Jackman wherever. In all of these scenes, the decision to record sound on set rather than in pre- or post- production pays huge dividends, because the songs get folded into the performances. This is why the decision to go with actors over singers is the right one, because while the voices of the principles are mostly adequate, the performances trump the songs, or, rather, amplify them in a way that vocal bombast would not. On the merits, Russell Crowe's Javert is the weakest voice in the cast, and the critical consensus is that the brings the movie down because of it. That's bullshit. Crowe is there as an actor not a singer, and a presence even more than an actor. When the movie contrives to place him above the wretches that populate the rest of the film, it's indulging in symbols that are independent of the music that goes with it. In all respects but his voice, Crowe is a splendid, sinister, unyielding Javert, which is exactly right. I can live with the voice. Really, the only actor to get the short straw in this film is Amanda Seyfried, but that's a fault of the material rather than the actor.

The filmmakers are singularly fortunate in the moral dimensions handed down to them from Hugo. This is a surprisingly Christian movie, and the theme of doing good no matter how miserable it makes you is the profoundest thing it takes from Christianity. The moral dilemmas this entails are the stuff of grand tragedy. More interesting to me is the fallibility of the law. Javert should be a hero, but he's so inflexible on the letter of the law he becomes an avatar of the blind imperfections of justice. Is the severity of Jean Valjean's sentence commensurate with his crime? Clearly not. Can Javert be excused for the rigidity of his service to the law? Clearly not. When he realizes at the end of the film that the moral force of the law is utterly bankrupt, it destroys him. The law, it turns out, really is an ass.

Tom Hoooper shows a surprising flair for the theatrical, given that The King's Speech was basically a chamber piece. The scene that opens the film, in which a gang of convicts haul a ship into drydock, is a grand gesture that announces the film as an epic. You see this in the mass combat that ends the film, too, and in the way it uses the open (and closed) sewer of 1832 Paris as a setting. The odd sight of rotted, plaster elephant in the shadow of the Arc de Triumph knocks the familiar askew. It works. But the best scenes in the movie are more baroque and intimate. Fantine's journey into the night after getting sacked is a kind of nightmare journey into the underworld, while the details of the Thenardier's career of larceny remind me a bit of how Martin Scorsese described Gangs of New York: it's a spaghetti Western set on Mars. The smartest thing Hooper does is let the actors sing on set, without the benefit of playback. He put earpieces in their ears with a piano to keep them on key, but otherwise, he lets them perform without needing to hit an arbitrary set of beats. This creates a more improvisational rhythm to the film than what one finds in other musicals. I think Hooper is aware of the nature of this film, its potential to be a white elephant of a movie. While the elephant here is provided by the play and by Victor Hugo himself, I can't help but think that Hooper films it as a symbol of his own: this is what my movie could have been, it says. But it's not.

As a final note, apropos of nothing about the movie itself: I love the promotional photography for this movie. They've framed many of these shots--like the shot of Hugh Jackman above--like paintings by Ingres. It's funny that they should do this, given that many of the scenes late in the movie recall Ingres's great rival, Delacroix. This is a film that "gets" its period even as it stylizes it for the imperatives of moviemaking. This is a well designed film, and it has well-designed marketing. I dig it.


Laura said...

Great review. From what I recall of the book (I never finished it either), Cosette is more interesting than she is in the musical, and Hugo spends more time with her, gives her a slight spunky edge.

That's actually my chief complaint with the musical. Except for the Thenardiers, the musical strips out most of Hugo's liveliness and humor in exchange for pretty dry, humorless, but oh so PROFOUND lyrics. There just isn't much personality in the whole thing. Even Eponine, the fan favorite, has little more to do than pine.

However, that's certainly not the movie's fault. I especially agree with you on Jackman and Hathaway's performances, even though they verged on blatant Oscar-baiting at times. Amanda Seyfried was certainly very purty if nothing else. Eddie Redmayne actually impressed me most in the thankless role of Marius, especially since I couldn't stand Redmayne in My Week With Marilyn. He was one of the few actors whose singing and acting were equally stellar.

Chris Hewson said...

I've soldiered through about half of Les Mis, and I can tell you for sure, that once Victor Hugo abruptly stops the book for nearly fifty pages to talk in great detail about everything that happened during the Battle of Waterloo, your kid self would have thrown the book on a bonfire in impatience! haha!

I don't know how much this would annoy me if I actually saw the movie, but going by the trailers, all I can think about Helena Bonham Carter is 'Why the hell does she have to look like a pale, jaundiced-haired Tim Burton character in every movie she's in?!' It REALLY bugs me!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura,

Eddie Redmayne wasn't bad at all, but his part is underwritten. The character himself seems like a complete idiot, too, given how oblivious he is to what's in front of him.

Hi, Chris,

I don't really mind Helena Bonham-Carter. Truthfully, the Burtonesque trollop persona is absolutely perfect for Madame Thenardier, so much so that my partner laughed aloud when she heard who was playing the Thenardiers. And, really, she's better in these roles than she ever was as the corseted ingenue in those Merchant/Ivory films all those years ago.

Lee Price said...

So far, I’ve managed to avoid all musical adaptations of Les Mis, but I can strongly recommend the book. Just skim through the history digressions (they are separated out into chapters, making them very easy to jump across) just like you’d do with Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the agriculture sections of Anna Karenina. As with Tolstoy, once the digressive essays are ignored, the rest is a cyclonic force of nature and shouldn’t be missed.

Aubyn said...

I agree with Laura that Eddie Redmayne was a standout, something that shocked me as well since I couldn't stand his drippy character in My Week With Marilyn. Although it is kind of a shock to spend time with the one-dimensional Marius of the musical and then find out that Hugo intended the book version to be a stand-in for his own younger self. Now I have a theory that Marius is sort of like Levin in Anna Karenina, the young idealist that gets watered down to nothing in adaptations.

For the most part, I'm sort of with you on the notion that this film is a strange mix of the very good and very problematic. I loved the first scene with the ship since it brought home the idea of this entire system, immense and absurd, just crushing down the lives of men. Subtle, no, but effective. I'll be content if Hathaway takes home the Oscar and I enjoyed her scenes in the underworld. I do have to disagree with you on Crowe since I felt he concentrated so much on his singing that he couldn't give a committed performance. He's a strong presence onscreen but I couldn't get a handle on his Javert, whether he's meant to be ascetic or tortured or sadistic or robotic or what.

At any rate, I did have a good time at the theater and it's always fun to see a film that goes full-throttle, no attempts at irony or self-protection.