Saturday, January 12, 2013
OSCAR WATCH: Les Miserables
Hmm, that was...nice. As I think back on this adaptation of "Les Miserables", that's the easiest way to some up my feelings. Unfortunately, simply being "nice" doesn't quite cut it. "Les Miserables" is a tragic story about many things - love, redemption, revolution and loss. It's aptly named because the source novel is full of misery indeed. I tried to read it, but I couldn't get make it through on account of how despondent it is. I'm a big fan of the stage musical version though, so this film was definitely on my must-see list. Taking all of this into consideration, why isn't this film more affecting? It's got all the goods, but the transition from to stage to screen wasn't entirely successful. The film is a mixed bag, varying in quality from song to song. There are various reasons for the uneven nature of this film.
The first thing I noticed was the cinematography. Of course, it's hard not to notice it when it's the main source of criticism, but so be it. For me though, the problem wasn't the closeups but the quick cuts that really took some time to get used to. Within each song, the image never lingers as it quickly switches angles and perspectives. It's such a disservice to the production design, which is a shame as it's actually one of the film's strong points. Between scenes as well, there is a mad rush to get to the next setting due to the sung-through nature of the musical. This made me question whether this material is really suited for the big screen. I don't remember having trouble with this when I watched "Evita" though, so the sung-through style wasn't the problem. I guess the naysayers were right then...the cinematography is bad.
In terms of the casting, the actors are all quite capable of delivering the splendid songs. If I had to pick a weak link, it would have to be Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried. They have good voices and I was quite taken with particular songs of theirs, but you could sense the strain in their voices in some instances. Crowe mostly stayed within his limited range, so we don't really get that furious rage we expect from Javert.
Apart from these 2, the other cast members were superb. Eddie Redmayne killed it with his version of "Empty Chairs in Empty Tables", Samantha Barks was devastating as the scorned Eponine, while Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provided some nice comic relief (although I expected Cohen to play to his comedic strengths more). In the lead role, Hugh Jackman was quite the revelation giving perhaps his best acting performance while simultaneously showing off his impressive pipes. He certainly deserves his Oscar nomination. The presence that looms over the entire film is Anne Hathaway though. She is every bit as good as you've heard. Her interpretation of Fantine digs way down into the depths of despair. It surpasses anything you'll see from the stage interpretation, which is limited by the need to sound perfect and polished. I knew she had a good voice, but I didn't know it was THAT good! She goes through a wide range of emotions while still staying firmly in key. When she sings "I Dreamed A Dream", it's one of the few instances where the closeup cinematography works perfectly. She just slayed me. Just give her the damn Oscar already!
Yet despite all the fantastic voices on hand, there are some key songs that just fell flat. Namely, "One Day More" and "Bring Him Home" didn't stir me up like they usually do. Especially in the latter, Jackman's voice didn't seem quite right. Just listen to Alfie Boe's version and you'll realize how soft and divine it's supposed to sound. Since these crucial songs didn't quite grab me, I wasn't immersed in the story like I wanted. Without this passion to guide you through, the film ended up feeling like a string of individual music videos.
Overall, the kudos should really go to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, since they wrote the music and lyrics. These songs are so lovely that you can just give me some good singers and I'll be fine. Despite my reservations, I still feel that it's a nice film as it gives the fans a cool cinematic visualization of the musical. It's a pity Hooper didn't let us see more of the well-designed sets behind all those closeups.
In terms of Oscar, the film certainly has Best Supporting Actress in the bag. It should also stand a good chance in Best Sound Mixing (I loved the background orchestra) and Best Makeup & Hairstyling (superb "ugly" work). Apart from that, Best Actor and Best Production Design are contenders, but they face stiff competition. The other categories are longshots which probably won't happen (Best Picture, Best Costume Design and Best Original Song). This Oscar season is ripe for upsets though, so anything can happen.