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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Les Mis hits the right note

Published: January 18, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

“Les Misérables,” originally based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, was first produced as an opera in 1980, and has been translated and revived many times since. The last version brought “Les Misérables” to a whole new venue for the first time as an epic, nearly-three-hour movie. Directed by Tom Hooper and starring, among others, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, “Les Misérables” is well worth its length.

Set in France, “Les Misérables” is a story that spans the years 1815 to 1832. As it begins, the audience follows a man on the run from the law and is ultimately led to the June Revolution, a piece of history which plays a central role in the plot.

What first stands out about “Les Misérables” are the unique decisions made in the details of production. Rather than have the actors pre-record their numbers, as in most musical films, all of the singing is done live before the camera, each song done in a single take. This allows the actors to show off what they’re truly capable of, creating heart-wrenching numbers. Additionally, this made for some unusual cinematography that furthered the aforementioned emotional strength. For most songs, particularly the solo pieces, the entire song is shot while the camera lingers on the actor’s face as he/she sings: there is nothing going on in the background, no dancing, nothing. The emotion of the story becomes infectious when so obviously laid out before the audience. It also means that the film is nothing like the majority of modern movies, simply because it will linger on a single image for so long, allowing the music and acting to stand on its own.

Particularly unique and quite astounding is the use of colors, especially in the second half as a revolution dawns on France. From that point on, it seems that the movie is presented entirely in red, white and blue, rather than the grim, hopeless grey tones of the first part.

Unfortunately, the vocals were not always as impressive as they could have been. Most of the cast members involved are first and foremost actors, not singers. While some were skilled vocalists and others passably so, not all were quite up to par, particularly Russel Crowe as Inspector Javert. That said, even with flawed vocal performances (particularly given that the songs were shot in a single take), in most cases the level of acting ability made those failings quite ignorable. The cracks and errors sounded genuine, a product of the characters’ grim situations rather than a failing on the part of the actors. This made it easy to ignore the faults.

Particularly of note in terms of a character’s emotional impact was Anne Hathaway’s now-famed performance as the dying prostitute, Fontine, which has already won her a Golden Globe and will likely result in an Oscar as well. There was also a clear level of devotion to the production among the actors, who put in long rehearsal hours in order to pull off those one-take songs. This devotion came to a zenith with Anne Hathaway, who lost dangerous amounts of weight for the role and had her own hair cut off on camera to end up in the film’s final cut. This dedication, however, certainly paid off.

Impressive for different reasons was the young Daniel Huttlestone as tiny street urchin and mini-revolutionary Gavroche, a child who truly held his own among an impressive cast of adult actors.
Of those impressive actors, Hugh Jackman, the production’s most notably-trained singer, was one of the characters who did not suffer from the aforementioned issues in singing. Jackman vanishes into the role of Jean Valjean, the character whose life “Les Misérables” primarily follows. One aspect that could have been paid more attention was the characters of many of the revolutionaries. Most of these men were not even referred to by name beyond the particular romantic hero, Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Especially in the case of the leader of these boys, Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), a larger role would have increased the power of their movement in the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately, this is likely the result of cuts that had to be made in order to bring a four-hour opera down to manageable film length.

Essentially, the greatest strength of “Les Misérables” is something it draws from its source material: the sheer power of its emotional impact. The tears run aplenty in “Les Misérables,” both onscreen and in the audience. The film brings a new generation of fans to an old story, and with such a successful movie, it is clear that “Les Misérables” will remain in our cultural consciousness for quite some time.