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Les Misérables (Blu-ray Review)

29 Mar, 2013 By: John Latchem

Box Office $148.70 million
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray
Rated ‘PG-13’ for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks.

In one of the early “Seinfeld” episodes (“The Jacket”), George remarks that he had just seen Les Mis on stage and had the song “Master of the House” stuck in his head. Get ready to feel George’s pain.

Director Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the legendary and enormously popular musical relentlessly bombards the audience with music, moving briskly through each set piece to get to another memorable song, and even singing most of the dialogue in between. Hooper’s style has stirred debate among enthusiasts for the stage productions, with many purists claiming he missed the mark. Having never seen the stage version, I for one found the result strangely captivating.

Perhaps it is best not to think of this as a film per se. Those looking for a cleaner presentation of the story can turn to any number of non-musical adaptations of Victor Hugo’s original 1862 novel, from the 1935 version starring Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, to the quite good 1998 movie with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush. Hooper’s film plays more like a nearly three-hour music video that reconstructs the stage version.

Still, the film does a capable job juggling the multitude of subplots from Hugo’s melodrama, following ex-con Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, whose close identification with Wolverine in the “X-Men” movies belies his background in musical theater) on a journey of redemption across several decades, pursued by the dedicated Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe, unfairly maligned for what turns out to be a more-than-adequate performance). Blaming himself for the suffering of the dying prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Valjean vows to protect her daughter, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried, whose high-pitched trill sounds like a Disney princess), who finds love with young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) in 1830s France.

The conflicts contained within Hugo’s story demonstrate three competing philosophies of life. Javert’s rigid devotion to the state and Valjean’s creed of piety and mercy contrast with a third option manifested in the form of the thieving and unscrupulous Thénardiers (the hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), whose only moral code is the pursuit of money.

This isn’t just a filmed version of the stage play. Hooper imbues the musical with great cinematic flair due to extensive location shooting and wonderful production design that give the film a great scope. Hooper in his commentary discusses and justifies the changes he felt needed to be made to craft a film around the musical, including revisiting the book to find inspiration for where to set certain scenes, how to clarify certain story points, as well as to add scenes of character depth and incorporating these into the sing-through.

Indeed, the main appeal is the music, recorded live on the set to maximize the emotional resonance of the performances. Take, for example, Hathaway’s heartbreaking rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which is essentially what won her the supporting actress Oscar for its raw power, which you just don’t get through playback of a studio recording.

Hooper’s method allowed for a lot of freedom on the set. For example, Baron Cohen came up with several sight gags to incorporate into the “Master of the House” number that really liven up the scene.

The live-singing technique is the subject of one of several great behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray. Others focus on set design, location shooting and casting, including how great care was taken to incorporate several actors from the various stage productions, the most notable being Samantha Barks as Eponine, whom she played at the West End and in the 25th anniversary concert, and Colm Wilkinson, who originated Valjean in 1985, playing the bishop who starts Valjean on a path to save his soul (an inspired bit of casting).

There are times it seems that Hooper started with a straight adaptation of the novel and applied the music to it. Fittingly, one of the better featurettes focuses on the life of Hugo, and what influenced him in writing the novel.

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