Monday, January 7, 2013

"Les Miserables" - The Film Musical

For many people, the stage musical Les Miserables is one haunting piece of artistic sight and sound performance. For me, Victor Hugo’s passionate weaving of words into a heart-rending, 1,500-page novel about social injustices is what made an indelible mark on my heart and memory.......

On my 2011 trip to Paris, I paid a visit to the novelist’s historic residence at No. 6, Place des Vosges (in the Le Marais district), where a great portion of the epic novel was given birth. I stood bewildered for a moment in that somber little room inside the mansion, wondering how the lifeless space, in which he would remain for hours on end hunched over the writing bureau churning out page after page, could squeeze such unparalleled creativity out of his head.

When I came out of the cinema with tear-filled eyes, I thought I had an idea as to why there are so many fans of the original stage play. Music simply has that special power to add another emotional dimension to an already tear-jerking tale. Though I’m familiar with the story, I had never had the pleasure of seeing the stage show. But probably exactly due to that reason, I was very pleasantly awed by Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the ever-popular stage musical. Not being burdened by a preconception and certain expectations that those original musical fans may carry, I was able to enjoy this film musical as it presented itself, on its own merits, without feeling compelled to compare it with the stage version.

Having said that, I can still think of one particular weakness of a live show as compared with a movie, and that is that spectators are at such a great distance from the stage actors (unless you’re in the front rows) that they are naturally unable to see the latter’s subtle facial expressions. This stage inadequacy is conveniently turned into a plus in a movie adaptation with close-up shots, thus avoiding the acting being lost on the audience.

Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the song “I dreamed a dream” sounds especially stunning as I hear it for the first time. Her acting is no less impressive. Hugh Jackman’s singing and acting throughout are nothing short of superb, as are Russell Crowe’s. Other songs I like are “Look Down” (group singing) and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by the character Marius.

In any movie adaptation from a novel, there is inevitably some tweaking of story details here and there. This film is no exception. But in general it doesn’t fail to make a powerful statement, aided by the poignant songs sung by great singers, of human love, grace, youth ideal and passion, redemption and forgiveness, which statement does not stray the least bit from the core themes of the novel. For me, this is all that matters.

Some critics take issue with the latter half of the film turning off the spotlight on the lead character to focus on other “painfully thin” characters. But I find the comic episode (that of Monsieur and Madame Thenardier’s buffooneries) and the unrequited love bit (that between Marius and Eponine) are actually a welcome relief as they give a neutralizing balance to the maudlin pathos of the first half of the film.

All in all, I enjoyed the film tremendously, just as I had enjoyed other film adaptations of stage musicals over the years, like “The Sound of Music”, “My Fair Lady”, “West Side Story”, “Grease”, “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Phantom of the Opera”, and “Mamma Mia”, etc. I have nothing but deep gratitude for the professionals in the film industry for having brought these more affordable versions of musical entertainment to the mass market.

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