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From now until the Friday before the Oscars we'll be running daily pieces about why a film does or does not deserve Best Picture. We've had speak up for Michael Haneke's Amour, Mack chimed in against Django Unchained while Eric stuck up for it, and Sean vouched for the magic of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Earlier Rich had a bone to pick with Les Miserables, or at least one member of its cast, and now Katey is here to sing its praises as a big, old-school film with a modern twist.
From the moment Les Miserables begins, it is announcing that it is big. A booming score, an enormous shot of a group of prisoners pulling a ship into harbor, a tattered French flag in the water representing the battered hopes of a people yearning to be free. An epic story based on an epic novel and a massive hit musical, Les Miserables shows up threatening to burst out of the sides of the frame at any second. It has a lot of feelings, and it's going to make you feel every single one of them.
When it comes down to it, isn't that what movies ought to be-- especially the ones produced by Hollywood? This is an industry that shepherd and transformed the musical, from Busby Berkeley fever dreams to Gene Kelly showmanship to the wackadoo spirit of Moulin Rouge! For more than a century Hollywood has taken this format born onstage and given it new life, allowing audiences to marvel at skilled dancing and heartfelt singing and elaborate sets for much cheaper than Broadway. By the time Les Miserables made it to screen its musical forebear had been on nearly every stage on the planet, with generations of fans rabid about their favorite Valjean or the true meaning of "Bring Him Home." If a movie version was going to play for all of these audiences, it didn't just have to nail it-- it had to redefine the musical entirely.
And Tom Hooper, that young Englishman who stole that Best Director Oscar right out from under David Fincher, managed to do it. His distinctive, close-up heavy cinematography has come in for a ton of grief, but it's undeniably effective, making this huge stage musical feel intimate and cinematic, and making songs that were merely moving onstage become heartstoppers onscreen. The best close-up, yes, does come early on, when Anne Hathaway demolishes "I Dreamed A Dream," but it lends power to songs throughout the film, from Jean Valjean's "What Have I Done" to the tender "A Little Fall of Rain" at the barricade. But combining them with the big shots, like the ship one at the very start or the zoom out over the winding streets of Paris with the barricade in the center, Hooper is using his camera to make a stage musical feel totally new-- with all the confidence you'd imagine that Oscar handed him.
The story that made Les Miserables such an enormous hit is perfectly intact, and in some ways improved. Fantine's showstopper "I Dreamed A Dream" is sung not before the endures the horrors in "Lovely Ladies" but after, a totally logical swap that gives her song even more emotional power. The big first-act finale "One Day More" happens before the rousing "Do You Hear The People Sing?" which allows each song to have more of a prominent role. Even the new song "Suddenly," derided by some as a cheap bid for the Best Original Song nomination, plays a key role in establishing the father-daughter relationship between Cosette and Valjean, the kind of life-changing moment you'd think would have deserved its own song in the original version, too.
And with the tight camera, of course, you need the actors to convey all these big feelings-- and Tom Hooper's prestigious name ensured they could get pretty much the best out there. Hugh Jackman clearly knows he was born to play Jean Valjean, committing himself fiercely to the role with weight loss and terrible hairdos and many tears directly into the camera. Anne Hathaway, as is well-established, makes just as strong a commitment, in a performance you actively miss once she's offscreen. Russell Crowe, for all the conversation about his weak singing, is forceful and believably cruel as Javert, and then crucially sympathetic as the second act begins. The smaller roles are all strong in their own ways, but special mention has to go to Eddie Redmayne, playing the passionate young revolutionary Marius with all the bright eyes and energy anyone could muster, plus an added sex appeal that has clearly marked his arrival as a star.
Les Miserables is the kind of musical that drives non-fans batty, but if you're watching this movie wondering why people are singing everything, you're genuinely missing the point. Musicals express feelings in a way spoken word simply can't, and this version of Les Miserables understands how to drill to the very root of those feelings, in ways nothing onstage really can. More than any of its fellow Best Picture nominees, it combines the old-fashioned showmanship of Hollywood films of yore with a crisp, modern aesthetic-- a signpost of how musicals can draw from the past as well as a map toward what they might become.