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18 January 2013

Les Misérables (Film Review) "Hooper, Hathaway, Hugh and a Horde of Fans"

It is not surprising that the producers aggressively promoted Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of “Les Misérables.”   Hathaway’s take on Victor Hugo’s downtrodden heroine is the highlight of the film.  Long after Hathaway’s Fantine left the screen, her heartfelt performance lingers, and every time you hear the melody of “I Dreamed a Dream,” the memory of Hathaway’s singing still resonates gently in the movie.  Like in the novel, Fantine was a pivotal character. She symbolizes the quintessential suffering proletariat. With her demise, the events in the lives of the rest of the characters change.  Everything begins to unravel after her death.  Even if the face of Cossette as a child became the symbol of the book, the musical and the film, Fontaine is still at the center of the tragedy. “Les Misérables” is certainly about Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) but it is his inability to save Fantine, and his promise to her set his life back into motion. 

Tom Hooper’s film adaptation is the pop version of a far better stage production.  However, Hooper managed to transpose the magic of the stage into film for a worldwide audience.  The film falters at some points, but the performances of the cast and the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer saved the film.

Like in “A King’s Speech,” Hooper relied on close-ups and let the actors’ performances push the narrative.  Unfortunately, this does not often work with all the actors but Hooper was keen enough to capture the best performances.  For instance, he did not cut away from Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” a nightmare of a song that can catapult a female actor to heights if done properly, but it can also sink one if done miserably.    Hooper’s one long shot highlighted Hathaway’s mesmerizing performance.  He also did the same with Hugh Jackman at the beginning of the film.  When a performance is lackluster, sadly such as Russell Crowe’s, Hooper veered his cameras on the surroundings.

Hooper is a master of infusing the simplest details as evident in “A King’s Speech.” Alas, in this film, he went over the top at the ending of the film.  Yes, this is a movie about French people, but surely, even the French did not have that much furniture to make a barricade.

Bottom line, for lovers of musicals, Hooper’s “Les Miz” is a must-see.  This is one of the few musical film adaptations that actually work.  The statement of one of our critics, who saw a Broadway production of “Les Miz” sums it all. “For true blue fans of the original stage musical, this film may be an enjoyable disappointment.  It is still up there, but not high enough.”

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is the audience. I was surrounded by die-hard fans that politely hum along with the songs despite many threats from “Les Miz” fans on Facebook not to sing along with the actors.  Nevertheless, who can blame them? Hathaway was so good that most gay men and straight women in the audience believed, just for a night, that they were Fantine, or perhaps Éponine.  Who am I to kill their dream? Sing on!

Three Faces of Fantine

Of course, any Fantine performance inevitably has to face comparison.  Did Anne Hathaway outshine previous Fantines?  It is not fair to compare Hathaway’s performance to that of Patti LuPone (the original West End Fantine) and to that of Lea Salonga (the latest most raved stage rendition).  Comparing the three famous Fantines will be like comparing three very different shades of red.

Three Faces of Fantine:
Patti Lupone (1985), Lea Salonga (2007),
and Anne Hathaway (2012). 
Use of Non-Free 

Media Rationale. Click Here
Painting by Margaret Hall (1886)
Part of public domain
Patti LuPone was the first Fantine, and she set the bar high for all other Fantines to come.  Some may argue that LuPone did not look the part of Fantine, but undeniably, her singing set the tone on how "I Dreamed a Dream" should be sung. If you cannot reach that bar, might as well forget it.

Lea Salonga’s performance is a marvelous surprise.  Transcending race and even age, Salonga’s version made other Fantines that come after Patti Lupone forgettable. This is a feat considering she only took over the role of Fantine 22 years after the musical debuted.

Hathaway’s performance is the film version of Fantine.  The medium is film and so Hathaway had the advantage of a close shot. Hooper was also wise enough to change the timing of the song. In the stage play, Fantine sang “I Dreamed a Dream” after she was fired from the factory. In the film, Fantine sang the same song after she sold her hair and forcibly sold her teeth and became a prostitute.  This gave Hathaway more emotional credence to act the song than to purely sing it.

Paraphrasing Hathaway, she said that she could never be compared to powerful singers like Patti LuPone and Lea Salonga so she will let her Fantine "be alive, present and raw," and she did.  Perhaps instead of comparing, be happy that instead of one Fantine, fans of “Les Miz” now have three, or even more. I am sure many fans have their own favorite Fantine. (First Published in "The Chair" Blog)

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