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Breathtaking Les Miserables Delivers on All Counts

Director Tom Hopper, Jackman, Hathaway all Oscar bound

By: Daniel Horowitz
Published: December 31st, 2012 in Culture » Film » Reviews
Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in 'Les Miserables'

Until Saturday, December 29th, at around 538 pm, I couldn't remember the last time I was part of movie audience that applauded the film at its end.

The film I had just witnessed on this particular day was Les Miserables, the film adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel that I had first witnessed some 30 years earlier, on stage, at the 1989 Canadian premier of the play at Toronto's Royal Alexander Theatre.

Yes, by the way, I was six back then, okay?

I'll admit that I surprised even myself on that night by how infectious and inspirational I found the songs, sets and performance to be. I guess I had been bitten by the theatre bug, although I never did get tested. In fact, I saw two subsequesnt performances of what is to this day my favourite play of all time.

So, while I had heard all the talk about director Tom Hopper's film version of Les Miserables, as well as about the early, predictable Oscar talk, the heart-wrenching moments, the tear-jerking wide-eyed misery of the most Miserable, Anne Hathaway's Fanitne, I still had no desire to ruin my still vivid memories of my evening at theatre those three decades earlier. I didn't want my cherished memories ruined by some over-zealous Hollywood interpretation of the play.

And, in retrospect, another reason I was reluctant to see this film was probably due to my bout of "Mama Mia Remorse" when, after enjoying the play of the same name, I made the foolish decision to see the movie of the same name, featuring an even more horrid alleged "vocal performance" from Pierce Brosnan.

Part of my stubbornness (other than the fact that I'm a Taurus) also had to do with what I considered odd casting choices, namely having Wolverine, aka Hugh Jackman in the lead as ex-prisoner but perpetually hunted Jean Valjean, while Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen played the inn-keeper charged with performing my favourite song, "Master of the House".

As any good husband does, I gave in to my wife and joined her, thinking that, if nothing else, it would give me a 3 hour respite from my energetic children, and an opportunity to catch up on my sleep.

You all know the story, it takes place in early 19th-century France, and follows the stories of many characters as they struggle for redemption and revolution. It's always been an interesting ensemble that includes prostitutes, student revolutionaries, factory workers, and others, who join the lead characters.

Well, just like the play did all those years ago, the first scene, featuring Jackman and despite Russell Crowe (I'll explain later) as his nemesis, Javert, with the heart-stopping "Look Down" being sung by countless downtrodden prisoners, had me hooked on Les Miserables all over again.

I hadn't realized that before he was Wolverine, Jackman was singing and dancing in "Oklahoma!," which earned him an Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

As for my other major casting concern, I know Sacha Baron Cohen is Jewish, but I couldn't help but wonder what he had on the director that he was "chosen" for this difficult and demanding role.

Fortunately, as soon as Baron Cohen began rolling his eyes, smirked to his on-screen-wife, the always fantastic Helena Bonham Carter I couldn't have imagined a better choice to play Thénardier, the shameless, keeper of the inn and the Master of the house. While it's clear that singing is not his strongsuit, Thénardier's dirty, dishonest and generally obscene personae had the voice it deserved in Baron Cohen.

In a strange twist of fate, it was the unique and somewhat courageous decision Hooper made to have all the actors sing live on camera, and not by having them sing their songs intop sound booths, as well as filming the big scenes in single takes. Seeing all your favourite actors, close up, in less than flattering make up and lighting, singing their hearts out with emotion, rather than pitch-perfect perfection. It's that all-too-real quality that made the biggest difference to me. It felt like real people singing real songs, and not in the usual cut and paste music video style.

Whether it was Hathaway's Fantine singing "I Dreamed a Dream," Jackman's Valjean pounding out an emotional "Bring him Home" or Amanda Seyfreid, as Cosette, who had showed her impressive singing chops in the aforementioned Mama Mia, singing "I Saw Him Once", the performances were raw, compelling and wonderful.

Unfortunately for Crowe, he was the one performer who most certainly would have benefited from pre-recording his songs. As a matter of fact, not only was his singing unremarkable, so, too was his acting which seemed tentative and uninterested, as if he had showed up to the set of the wrong movie. He seemed to be the proverbial deer in the headlights throughout the film, as if he were simply looking for a good car chase to join.

Was the film over the emotional top at times, seemingly calling out to Oscar voters? Sure. Would it have been even better if Hathaway had somehow managed to convince Hooper that Fantine would be more believable wearing her Catwoman costume from “Dark Knight Rises”? Obviously. Nonetheless, I cried three times during the film, and it wasn't only because my wife had forgotten our free passes. Since the time Victor Hugo penned this classic in 1862, part of its resounding success has been its ability to pull on our heart strings, and this film does that in spades. And, besides, to see Wolverine, I mean Jackman's life of virtue ultimately rewarded, and to see young love triumph against all odds, gives hope to us all, especially as we welcome the New Year when all things are again possible.

Related articles: Les Miserables, Movie, Review, Victor Hugo, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
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