Les Miserables (2012)

In a time where even the Smurfs movie has to be cloaked in irony, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables couldn’t have come fast enough. It’s been a long time since I saw something this sincere and brilliant. Cloud Atlas got really close, but its sincerity often got in the way of the story it was trying to tell, almost like a child making puppy-dog eyes because he wants cookies before dinner. The sincerity didn’t feel earned because it felt like an affront.

Not here. Les Miserables is a tragic, heart-wrenching, beautiful film about loss and sacrifice and honor and morality, and it never takes the easy road out. It never politicizes for its audience. It never tells you anything, it just shows you.

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After months and months of early reviews, hype, and before-screening featurettes (“you have to make your acting decisions three months ahead of time,” anybody?), I was kind of sick of this movie before it ever came out.

I knew Anne Hathaway was poised to deliver a showstopper. I knew Hugh Jackman was going to light up the screen. It was pretty clear. Tom Hooper, director of John Adams and The King’s Speech, was going to shove his wide-angle lens all over his expensive set and into the nostrils of his stars. People were going to be dirty and sad.

Also, that gimmick. All of the singing was done live, as we heard over and over again. Okay, we get it, you did it the hard way. Awesome. Go win your Oscar.

Movies like this tend to bore me. It’s all big emotion and extravagant costumes and amazing set designs. It’s all about that Oscar. Like Lincoln before it, I was terrified of walking into a very safe, Academy-Award-baiting film starring all of the people who want Oscars.

And then I saw it. And everything changed.

From the opening shot, which moves across an enormous ship getting pulled into a harbor by hundreds of French prisoners, to the final shot of a rebel army screaming from the barricades, I was completely and totally transfixed by the shocking ambition and absolute sincerity of it.

This is a huge movie. And I don’t mean that in terms of scope or size (which it is), but in terms of how much work it must have taken to get made. Each actor had to deliver inspired, brilliant musical performances with each take, and each angle, every day of this film. Tom Hooper had to inject life into a movie that is 99% sung, and some poor studio somewhere had to keep giving money to the set designers, who couldn’t stop producing jaw-dropping sets for the actors to perform in.

Where Cloud Atlas‘s ambition was unwieldy and bloated, the ambition here is inspiring. It works because the story is compelling and emotional and honest. And it isn’t scared to get muddy, ambiguous, strange, and sad.

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In places where I expected sentiment, I got tragedy. In places where I expected self-conscious Oscar clips, I got sincere, genuine performance. The kind of performance that gets inside your soul. The kind of performance that reminds you why you love the movies.

We are transported. When Anne Hathaway sings her big number (which will undoubtedly win her an Oscar, because, let’s face it, it’s still Oscar-bait, even if it’s also very good), I don’t see anything other than raw, honest emotion playing in front of me. I don’t see an actor in a role. I don’t sense the crew standing in front of her, trying not to breathe, watching this amazing piece of performance unfold. I just see a woman who has lost everything, and can do nothing but cry.

And if you know me, or if you’ve been reading this site for any length of time, you’ll know that it really, really pains me to so wholly love something so…safe?

But is it safe?

Making a big budget musical is one thing, but making a movie this long, this emotional, this dark, and this committed to its form (in the three hour runtime, maybe twenty lines of dialogue are actually spoken. All else is in song.) really safe? Is a movie of this budget, with this plot, and this subject matter really a piece of populist cinema?

I don’t know. It seems like a huge gamble disguised as populist cinema. Because what I saw in Les Miserables was a weird little art film that just happens to have a huge budget, fantastic cast, and legions of fans who saw the stage version.

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If you are at all interested in seeing this movie, do yourself a favor and see it on the big screen. It is spectacle in a way we haven’t seen since DeMille.

Whether it’s the best movie of the year, I don’t know, but it’s certainly the most important film of the year. It taught me about myself. It taught me that anything can be brilliant, and that we don’t need irony to have a good time.

Also, that gimmick? Best idea ever. Perfect, really.

 

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