LES MISERABLES Blu-ray Review

     April 7, 2013

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I’m still surprised by how deeply Les Miserables touched me.  I’m not a huge fan of musical theater and while I’d been mildly impressed by the 10th anniversary concert, I never grasped what all the fuss was about.  I went into Tom Hooper’s 2012 movie adaptation with high hopes, but no expectations.  I left a blubbering wreck, reduced to tears a good half-dozen times in the course of its 150-minute running time.  Plenty of folks feel the same way… and plenty of other folks still see nothing but bombastic sentiment.  The new Blu-ray isn’t likely to change anyone’s minds.  Or is it?  Hit the jump for my full review.

les-miserables-blu-rayHooper’s central creative conceit involved recording the singing live onset, as well as making copious use of close-ups to capture the actors’ emotions. That makes for a radical departure from the stage musical, where the performers play to the cheap seats and the emotions come as broad as the all outdoors. They’re still broad here, as we follow the tormented path of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) through seventeen years of French history. But thanks to Hooper’s intimacy – his focus on performance above all things – we never lose sight of humanity at its core.

Paroled from prison and saved from a return trip by a kindly priest (Colm Wilkinson), Valjean vows to lead a righteous life. He stumbles when he inadvertently dismisses single mom Fantine (Anne Hathaway) from his factory. She turns tricks to survive, catches tuberculosis and drops dead before he can correct the error, inducing him to save and raise her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried) from a life of toil and drudgery. All the time, he’s pursued by a fanatical police captain (Russell Crowe) while the fires of revolution rise around them all.

The secret lies in how close we feel to f these figures: the way their struggles, hopes and despair seep into our consciousness. That can’t work without dropping your guard a little bit; snarking becomes very easy with such ready theatrics and if you can’t accept the emotions on the characters’ sleeves, you’re doomed. But again, the still-controversial use of close-ups (coupled with the very strong performances) make that a lot easier.  The songs attain an intimacy rarely seen in movie musicals, aided by Hooper’s direction which keeps us close at all times. If you let them in, they prove stunning in their emotional impact: a single tear or twitching mouth conveys volumes that lesser films couldn’t manage in hours of effort.

hugh-jackman-les-miserablesAnd the scenario retains far more pertinent now that just a few years ago. Les Miserables concerns itself primarily with social justice, and how difficult true generosity can be in the face of large-scale indifference. We watch the widening gulf between the haves and have nots these days, and see those same tensions playing out on the screen before us. The film’s ultimately uplifting message gives us hope to overcome such challenges, as well as quietly reassuring us that any efforts to reach out to our fellow man are worth it.

Indeed, it may actually be easier to absorb at home than in the theaters, where the daunting sight of Crowe’s pores projected to forty-foot height tends to obscure the film’s better qualities.  The close-ups become far less frightening on the small screen, and help us enjoy the nuance of the performances far more readily. I imagine the Blu-ray will bring more converts in than the theatrical run did, and even if it doesn’t, the gorgeous sound and image quality still make for terrific viewing.

anne-hathaway-les-miserables-imageLes Miserables isn’t for everyone, of course, and its detractors will always find ammunition to use against it. It’s a very square movie, devoid of snark, irony and any sense of hipness.  But if you can slip past its bombast – if you accept it on its own terms and allow it to work on you – then its power can be overwhelming. I won’t deny critics’ concerns about it, but neither can I deny the effect it had on me… an effect that hasn’t diminished after multiple screenings and which holds up exceptionally well on Blu-ray. If you give it a chance, it might just surprise you.

The Blu-ray itself is a little sparse, though the film looks great and the sound mix is top-notch.  Hooper’s audio commentary lends keen insight into the creative decisions behind the film (which will likely be debated for some time to come), though a lengthy behind-the-scenes documentary covers only the basics of production. A brief piece on Victor Hugo’s original novel and Universal’s standard BD Live function round out the disc. It’s fairly thin soup for such a prominent feature: vaguely interesting, but lacking the acumen required to really knock us off our feet. Luckily, it doesn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to recommend it. Les Miserable ranks as one of the best films of 2012, and a shining example that movie musicals can take us to surprising places.

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