Saturday, January 5, 2013

Les Miserables, a review


I am no fan of musicals, with the exception of Singing in the Rain. I never found the Liam Neeson version of Les Miserables particularly compelling, and I am somewhat unfamiliar with the source material.

But I can tell you what it is all about.

It begins with a fallen prisoner under the law, Jean Valjean. It continues with a lonely mother turned prostitute, Fantine. It concludes with the just hammer of the law, Javert.

TECHNICAL

Les Miserables is a revelation. From the opening shot and set piece involving the physical towing of a ship into dock, where prisoners sing and waves crash. It is a sonic cacophony, with a swelling tide of barely bridled rage and thriving emotion.

The bulk of the dialogue is told via song, and this is where the film would fly or fall for most. I've read criticisms leveled at the film for focusing on tight shots, eschewing the sweeping grandure that would maybe typify a musical of this type. So the film's technique works against type, but instead I believe the film creates a gritty and spellbinding example. The criticisms aren't particularly persuasive, and I believe the film sets itself apart.

In an sense, the set piece isn't what is important. The song and the emotion and the power is given center stage, making this an actor's dream. Center stage. Coupled with mood lighting, exquisite set design and pacing that rarely flounders, the film is a technical masterpiece.

The song editing and design is masterful, keeping me from ever realizing that this was ever staged. Hooper's technique of having the actors perform their pieces on set is genius.

NARRATIVE

As I mentioned above, this is an actor's movie. Hugh Jackman fits the roll perfectly, exemplifying the inner turmoil that fits a man who has been reduced to base instincts: feed and survival. He is the apostle Paul before his fateful journey. The sequence of him questioning God and himself in the chapel is magnificent. It is gritty, uncomfortable due to the camera angles and highly emotive. For some it will be off putting. But most "confessional" scenes are rarely clean.

Anne Hathaway completely surprised me. I wasn't expecting anything from her in the role, but she takes her character and breathes her perfectly. The standout scene of the entire film is an uncut five minute take where she sings "I Dreamed a Dream." Perfection.

Criticisms have been leveled against Russell Crowe's performance, with some labeling it as "stiff." While it is certainly not his most emotive role, his performance seems consistent with his character. The Law seems rarely flexible or emotive, simply content to be "just."

All of those three paragraphs to say, the singing rocks.

My main criticism covers two topics: pacing and mood. The innkeepers Sascha Cohen and Helena Carter bothered me, more in that they felt out of place and severely crippled the pacing of the film. For their entire introduction, I felt I had stumbled into b-roll of Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. The section slows the entire film and would've been better left out entirely or severely cut. Their subsequent reappearances do not fare better.

THEMES

The film is a living examination of the entire theology of Saint Paul, and Valjean is a perfect Pauline archetype. From the Damascus Road revelation, to his view of Galatians 3:28 in helping the fallen within society, to a nearly Adamic view as we see in Romans 7 in his treatment of sin and the law. In fact, every character (minus Javert) has an acute sense of despair, as they cannot live up to either the Law nor fulfill the world.

We see the conflict between the Law and those "in Christ" as shown by Javert, unmovable, unshakeable. Unable to cope with anything outside his systematic system. The Law cannot account for everything, and the film amply showcases this.

CONCLUSION

Les Miserables isn't perfect, but it is a sobering, powerful reminder of a life's testimony to not only grace but reconciliation. In it we see the seeds of liberation from a life of oppression, a life in bondage to sin, to a life victorious.

A living breathing parable.

4.5 out of 5.

--Nick

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