Monday, December 31, 2012

To Love Another Person

is to see the face of God. 

Or in other words, I just got home from Les Miserables. The full review is too big for facebook, so here we are. 

Let's get this one out of the way first: why Russell Crowe??? Why???? Why was he cast, and why, once he took the part, did he just phone it in like that? The part has real potential; Russell Crowe has real potential. I know this because I've seen Russell Crowe in other things and he's made a believer out of me. But this...this was just sad. 

I fault casting foremost, because even if he pulled off a stellar performance, like his past performances would lead one to believe he is capable of, the guy really and truly can't sing. Okay, he could hold his own in the shower or at a local karaoke bar, but he was completely outclassed in this show. It was a distraction and it was just a wee bit embarrassing. 

That gets my only real complaint out of the way. Bye-bye, Russell Crowe. 

The winner of the I-was-so-unbelievably-wrong-and-holy-heck-give-this-woman-an-oscar-already award goes to Anne Hathaway, who did not just nail the performance; she blew it out of the water and into orbit somewhere near Jupiter. Yes, I raised my eyebrows when I heard she'd been cast, and yes, I opined that the casting choice had likely been based more on star power than talent. I am shoveling the words down my throat as fast as I can swallow. If I ever doubted whether that woman could act (not that I did doubt it, but  Ella Enchanted isn't the best showcase of acting talent, kwim?), this performance has me on my knees, bowing down before the glory of Princess Mia. Not only act, but folks, this lady can sing. She is the real deal, and yes, I will preach on. 

Am I the only one who teared up with Colm Wilkinson stepped onto the screen? I'm sorry, but if that casting choice didn't warm your heart you are a hopeless bastard who probably kills puppies for fun. The satisfying symmetry of having him assume the role of Jean Valjean's benefactor would have been enough; I would have forgiven him making an ass of it. As it was, he brought a compassion, grace, and strength to the character that moved the entire story from the realm of morality tale into something more transcendent and fittingly, nearly divine. 

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen...oh my. They did not disappoint. I expected nothing less than brilliant comedic work from Ms. Bonham-Carter, and that is what I got. I had some trepidation about whether Borat/Bruno could inject the humanity required to keep the character from being written off, and a little to my surprise, he did it. As a couple, they were delightful--if that word can be used for pathetic, amoral, shiftless, worthless characters. 

Watching Amanada Seyfriend is pretty much like scooping out frosting with your fingers and eating the entire can. So sweet, so yummy, that you know you should feel guilty because it's not humanly possibly to have so much sweetness all in one spot, yet there you are. I knew she had the musical ability to pull this off (thank you, Mamma Mia); what pleasantly surprised me was the youthful innocence and charm she projected. At some point she's got to be over the hill and past the point of playing cute teenagers...but apparently that day is not yet. 

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks did a lot with a little in creating full-fledged, sympathetic characters out of a few lines and a couple songs. While I hope this is the first of many, many artistic successes for both of them, I'm also crossing my fingers that neither one will go all Hollywood on us, but stick with the raw talent and natural good looks they brought to this movie. I love seeing actors who aren't afraid to be real--and who don't need their teeth capped to do it. That's probably why I watch a lot more BBC than anything on American commercial television, but I digress. 

And Hugh. If you follow my blog at all, you know I've got a bit of a sweet spot for Mr. Jackman. To be perfectly honest, I was biting my lip as the movie began, digging fingernails into my hands, hoping that expectations weren't set too high for this "role of a lifetime," as he called it. 

What can I say? While I've been a fan of Les Mis for more years than I can even remember, I've never really understood the larger-than-life character of Jean Valjean. He seemed more symbolic and archetypal than flesh and blood, and whenever I attended performances, I felt vaguely sorry for the actor cast in the role because it just seemed like one of those parts that is impossible to play. Kind of like being cast as Christ, except, in some ways, even worse, because any audience watching someone portray Christ knows it's a pale imitation, but Jean Valjean is a kind of super-hero Everyman. Appropriate that it should be Wolverine, eh? 

So, the best praise I can offer is that, for the first time, I felt like I really DID understand Valjean, The character became real to me, and every event, every choice, every move, made sense. In terms of the story, of course, this changed the entire experience for me, which in turn changed me, because that is what great art does. All the redemptive power in Victor Hugo's soaring story is played out in the character of Jean Valjean, in the body of Hugh Jackman, and all I can feel is immense gratitude that he paid the price to get it right, so that I could have a transformative experience in row E, seat 16. This type of grueling, demanding performance is why I've been known to fly off the handle when people crack jokes about how easy acting is,  or mock the study of theatre as a much-lesser path of the lazy. Throughout all ages of this world we celebrate and learn from story, and we venerate those who offer up their own bodies--their own selves--to bring us those stories and enact them in themselves. Even as I was fully immersed in the music, design, and magic of the film, the little voice in my head was marveling at the level of preparation Hugh Jackman obviously brought to the role. The little voice also made snide comments about the obvious lack of preparation brought by Mr. Crowe, but I shushed those because I only wanted to focus on happy thoughts. 

Other notes--the production design was impressive. I wondered how the grandeur of the musical would be carried out, without falling prey to a big-movie temptation to go grandiose, and it worked for me. I was very curious about how they'd pull off the big finale, and it was satisfying. Solid and triumphant without being over-blown. I'm thrilled that the hollywood version kept the religious symbolism of the original musical. It made for lush design, but also brought a deeper undercurrent to the themes of mercy, justice, and redemption that Les Mis is all about. 

My highest compliment: I'm not the same person I was when I walked into the theater tonight, and for that I am deeply grateful. 

Well done, cast & production team. In my humble opinion, the awards and accolades are deserved. Thank you for this gift. 

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