Theater director, translator and guest contributor Claudio Botelho writes about the film version of ‘Les Misérables,’ directed by Tom Hooper and starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried. The film, which premiered in Brazil on February 1, commemorates the 25th anniversary of the musical phenomenon by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer. Claudio Botelho previewed the film this past Monday, January 28.
LES MISÉRABLES IS A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE
By Claudio Botelho
Professional journalists from around the world have tossed their opinions and other pearls of wisdom at the movie LES MISÉRABLES. Ergo I imagine that much of what’s been written about the film — perhaps too much — has already been said. Nevertheless, let me add my own thoughts: this is a not-to-be-missed event. Now I’m no journalist, nor even a movie critic, but here I sit, less than 12 hours after watching last night’s preview, and I still can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just seen one of the finest film adaptations (not just of musicals) of the past few years.
I felt something similar with CHICAGO, the only other musical of recent times that had left the Broadway stage and that, to my knowledge, made the successful transition to the screen with the same force as LES MIS is now showing.
One of the criticisms against the film that I’ve been hearing lately has to do with the extensive use of close-ups. Now I ask myself, non-critic that I am: why is that a problem? In all honesty, they make a world of difference in this production. The open spaces at the start of each scene focus in on the actor’s countenance, until the musical introductions (those so-called recitatives) become the songs themselves — and from there, we get in-your-face close. And it pierces the heart! The actors’ performance, in extreme close-up and without benefit of dubbing (the film’s sound was recorded live for practically all of the most important numbers) bring their interpretations into your lap and straight to your heart — with a lump in your throat the whole time you are watching. And not just that of the viewer but of the actors themselves, for in this environment you can guarantee that what you’re seeing is no trick of the trade, but the unvarnished truth.
The most touching example is without a doubt Anne Hathaway singing the emblematic “I Dreamed a Dream.” The number lacks a single camera cut; we accompany her suffering every step of the way, while the song’s subtle story line takes on a layer of meaning that, in previous performances, wasn’t even present. The back-story derives from the character herself, a single mother abandoned by her lover on the night she conceived his child, which in Victor Hugo’s novel takes many pages to explain, but here jumps to the forefront in only two or three verses; until you finally understand (within the song’s framework) the love that she, Fantine, had for the man that robbed her of her youth and transformed her into who she is today. In no other theatrical representation of this music, seen by us at a distance of no more than one or two rows from the stage, has this aspect of the popular tune stood out as much as it does here. Anne Hathaway’s visceral and strikingly original interpretation practically rewrites this familiar hit.
The film has many such moments. The major song numbers are all done without a single edit: you see the actor come into view, constructing the musical number unencumbered by any apparent gimmicks; next, the camera moves in and invades the number by locking itself onto the actor’s face, and it only lets go when the last note is sung.
Hugh Jackman, who does not possess the idealized Jean Valjean voice one is used to hearing in recordings and in the theater, overcomes this handicap by showing real anguish at being the “wrong man” throughout the entirety of his life, performing his numbers as only the film’s pivotal player can do, the central pole anchoring the other actors’ interpretations. Truth be told, it was at his insistence that the production embraced the idea of working with sound direct from the movie set, a revolutionary approach. I’m not sure I’ll have the patience anymore to see filmed musicals the old-fashioned way (with the soundtrack recorded separately in the studio, then played back on set for the actor to dub). It’s going to be difficult to accept anything less than what we saw yesterday.
Another detail that, in my opinion as non-critic, radically alters my relationship to this work is the newly orchestrated score. LES MISÉRABLES was conceived for the theater as that semi-detestable 1980s object of derision conventionally known as “rock opera.” These forays — Les Mis, Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar (examples from the list I detest) — all made their biggest impact with obligatory orchestrations that mixed traditional classical sounds (opera) with jarringly horrific keyboard elements (rock), a combination that, to my individual taste, bordered on the intolerable. I once served as lyricist for the 2001 Brazilian staging of LES MISÉRABLES, where I had the honor of working closely with the visiting composers, as well as the play’s producers and original creators; however, I must confess that although I enjoyed their lush tunes, not for a minute was I convinced that this battery of electronic tonalities did justice to Victor Hugo’s romantic 19th-century setting. Mercifully, the film dispenses with all those keyboards, with the pristine orchestration now showing off the music for what it is: one delightful passage after another.
Real accordions can be heard in that not-so Gay Paree of yore, with narry an electric guitar flying over those barricades of freedom. It’s all concert music, and finally LES MISÉRABLES has left the bottom drawer as that “tuneful musical with one foot in the tacky-longhair camp,” to be placed on the upper-most shelf of works where the likes of Sondheim, Richard Rodgers, and other first-rate authors are stored.
Still another aspect that the film resurrects is its close ties to OLIVER!, the grandest of British shows based on Charles Dickens’ novel — for me, one of the finest musicals England has ever produced to this day. Not by chance did Cameron Mackintosh, the producer genius behind LES MIS and countless other successes, began his acting career with the very first staging of OLIVER! His obsession with the show led him to stage it in other memorable mountings. Now that he’s had the opportunity to turn LES MIS into his first-ever film production, his love for Lionel Bart’s work explodes on the screen: the new film speaks the same cinematic language as the earlier Carol Reed-directed version of OLIVER! (winner of the 1969 Best Picture Oscar). There are entire scenes in LES MISÉRABLES, especially the ones where the masses gather in the streets, that are definitively “Oliverian”; the Thenardiers are really two “Fagins” acting in concert, while the scene of their initial appearance is practically a reproduction of Fagin’s hideout from OLIVER!; little Gavroche, one of the “good” street urchins, is the Parisian Artful Dodger; and so forth.
I’m in a state of grace. My belief that musicals of quality can drag the multitudes to the movies and into the theater, without any concession to what’s “in” at the moment, or “the latest parade of hits,” has been reinforced. More than this, the absolute certainty that theater, art and musicals have no boundaries, that they are not dictated by bragging rights or cultural conversions. What I saw yesterday is a musical based on a French literary classic, composed by two Frenchmen, re-translated into English and turned into a fabulous stage production in London, that went on to conquer Broadway, then circled the globe, that tells a story that took place in Paris, with Gallic characters, and yet… still manages to reach the heart of everyone who’s watched it. It’s the kind of film that makes those of us who modestly inhabit this world of ours immensely proud of what we do.
Claudio Botelho is a director, actor and translator in Brazil. Here is the link to his original article in Portuguese: http://www.moellerbotelho.com.br/index.php/blog/item/209-claudio-botelho-les-miserables-%C3%A9-um-filme-maior
(English translation by Josmar Lopes)
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes