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Reimagining ‘Les Miz’

Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables, Universal Studios, film, gay news, Washington Blade

Anne Hathaway in a scene from ‘Les Miserables.’ (Photo courtesy of Universal Studios)

By the time the credits roll on Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of the stage musical “Les Misérables,” the audience is well acquainted with every inch of Hugh Jackman’s face.

Sometimes, that’s a good thing. You hear every word plainly and you share every emotion that passes across that expressive face. But the obsessive close-ups highlight the melodramatic aspects of the story and downplay the complex web of relationships and themes that structure the source material.

The movie adaptation is based on the sprawling 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, via the incredibly popular 1987 musical version by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alan Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer. The screenplay, which trims the material to two-and-a-half hours, is by William Nicholson. It’s essentially the story of Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving children.

Newcomer Samantha Banks as Éponine is the standout performer of the all-star ensemble cast. Her rendition of the new Broadway standard “On My Own” is deeply moving and beautifully delivered. Sung as the lovelorn Éponine wanders the rainy streets of Paris serving as a go-between for Marius and Cosette, the song is an example of Hooper’s work at its finest. The intimacy of the camera work matches the intimacy of the musical moment and the nuances of Banks’ fine acting.

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring some badly needed comic relief to the movie as the cynical Thénardiers. “Master of the House,” a comic inventory of the many ways they fleece their unwary guests, is a delightful counterpoint to the otherwise earnest proceedings. Their highly effective performances flesh out both the couple’s considerable charm and their significant menace.

The three leads (Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert and Anne Hathaway as Fantine) also offer strong performances, but their impact is lessened to various degrees by their limitations as performers and by Hooper’s work as director. Hooper made movie musical history by having the actors sing live on the set instead of lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack. This often brings an emotional intensity to the material, but sometimes undermines the musical demands of Schönberg’s intricate and complicated score.

For example, Crowe subtly humanizes Javert, capturing his stern ruthlessness as well as his profound belief in how human and divine justice interact in an orderly society. Hooper highlights these moments with some stunning cinematography: Javert’s duel with Valjean in the thrilling “Confrontation” at Fantine’s deathbed, his unfeeling horseback rides among the poor of Paris and especially his delivery of “Stars” while pacing on the ramparts high above the city.

But there’s a critical problem with his vocal performance as Javert. While Crowe has a pleasant singing voice (he’s been the lead singer for several bands), he’s not the Broadway belter the role requires. He has pitch and rhythm problems in the opening scenes and in his big solo numbers, his vocal performances fall flat. This robs his excellent work of much of its power. These problems could probably have been worked out in the studio, possibly even with the discreet use of some dubbing.

Hathaway’s performance of the iconic “I Dreamed A Dream” brings out the considerable pathos of the number, but misses the larger dramatic point. Hathaway has an unexpectedly powerful singing voice that matches her rich talents as an actor, but Hooper lets her get lost in the melodrama of the moment, missing the crucial spirit of defiance that underscores the number and propels Fantine into her final act of rebellion against her cruel fate.

Jackman offers a stirring performance as Jean Valjean. He rises to the vocal challenges of the role with apparent ease and resists the temptation to turn Valjean into a one-dimensional saint. Yet his fine performance is frequently undermined by Hooper’s relentless close-ups, which tear the character out of his cinematic context, and Hooper’s continually swirling cameras, which pull focus from Jackman’s extraordinary acting and singing.


Year in review: Best of the big screen

Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, the Paperboy, Washington Blade, gay news

Matthew McConaughey and Zac Efron in new film ‘The Paperboy.’ The sordid tale opens today in the D.C. area. (Photo courtesy of the Karpel Group)

Undoubtedly, the highlight of the year in LGBT film was the release of David France’s amazing documentary “How to Survive a Plague.”

France, a first-time director but an experienced journalist who has written extensively on the AIDS crisis, worked with a dedicated team to collect and review about 500 hours of video footage shot by AIDS activists during the early days of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and TAG (the Treatment Action Group).

The result is an incredible film that combines the raw emotional energy of archival footage with the more detached analysis of contemporary interviews with survivors of the movement. The movie tells their story with great emotional and intellectual clarity and insight. It chronicles their successes and defeats, their miscalculations and their personal and professional struggles, but mainly the aching sense of lives lost to a vicious disease, an entrenched bureaucracy and an indifferent public.

The most memorable performance in an LGBT movie came from a very different film: Nicole Kidman in “The Paperboy,” helmed by openly gay director Lee Daniels. Following up on the success of “Precious,” Daniels turned to a steamy Southern tale of sex, murder and corruption in the Florida swamps of 1969. The bizarre film, which never quite jelled, featured a wild performance by Kidman as the vampy death row groupie Charlotte Bless.

Other highlights of the movie include, which may well be on the way to becoming a camp classic, include numerous scenes of  Zac Efron in various states of undress and Matthew McConaughey as a muck-racking journalist with a secret of his own — he likes rough sex with black men.

Other highlights in LGBT film in 2012 include:

“Albert Nobbs,” which took star/producer Glenn Close several years to get to the screen. Close plays an Irish woman who lives as a man to support herself financially and protect herself from sexual violence. Her hermetic existence as the hotel clerk Albert Nobbs is burst open when she meets fellow cross-dresser Hubert Page (played with great gusto by Janet McTeer).

“Coriolanus” with Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler (“300”) in this excellent adaptation of Shakespeare’s queer look at militarism and misogyny. With remarkable fidelity to the Bard’s powerful language and themes, first-time director Fiennes moves the action to modern-day Kosovo and boldly highlights the homoerotic relationship between the Roman general Coriolanus and his Volscian foe Aufidius.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” — India once again serves as a source of renewal for a group of stiff-upper-lipped English expatriates who retire there. The all-star cast includes Tom Wilkinson as Graham Dashwood who finally finds love and the courage to come out at the exotic hotel.

“Skyfall” brings a much-needed reboot to the Bond franchise, restoring several Bond motifs and a missing sense of humor and style. With the help of Judi Dench (who continues her excellent work as M) and Ben Whishaw (a new recruit as Q), Daniel Craig’s Bond battles Javier Bardem as Silva, a British spy gone bad. For gay audiences there’s a special thrill when Bond responds to Silva’s sexual advances with the dry retort, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

“Lincoln” is Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the 16th president and features a powerful script by award-winning gay author (and Golden Globe nominee) Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”). Kushner has the amazing ability to turn political rhetoric into compelling drama as he chronicles how Abraham Lincoln fights for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlaws slavery in the United States. The film includes stellar performances from Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader, as well as a delightful cameo by S. Epatha Merkerson. The film also includes tantalizing hints at Lincoln’s intimate relationships with other men, including an invitation to share an aide’s bed.

Local LGBT audiences also enjoyed the continued success of two excellent regional film festivals: D.C. Shorts and Reel Affirmations.

Under the leadership of openly gay local filmmaker Jon Gann (“Cyberslut”), the ninth D.C. Shorts festival included a variety of exciting films all under 20 minutes. A number of fascinating gay and lesbian shorts were sprinkled throughout the 16 cinematic showcases, including “The Maiden and the Princess,” a queer update on traditional fairy tales that was part of a family showcase; “Hatch,” a dark movie by Austrian director Christopher Kuschnig that looks at the lives of two couples on a wintry night in Vienna when a baby’s fate is decided; and “The Queen of My Dreams,” a delightful Bollywood take on a lesbian’s coming-out story.

To extend their outreach, Reel Affirmations began a series of monthly film showcases in addition to the 21st annual film festival in November. The festival opened with the double bill of “Kiss Me,” a deeply romantic Swedish lesbian coming out story, and “I Do,” an American film about a gay couple in New York grappling with international immigration issues. The festival closed with “Bear City 2: The Proposal,” a celebration of the bear community and romantic Provincetown weddings.

A highlight of the festival was “Yossi,” the sequel to the Israeli indie gay hit “Yossi and Jagger.” The film reunites director Eytan Fox with star Ohad Knoller who turns in a deeply emotional performance as a man finally breaking out of his emotional paralysis.