Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Responding to Mercy

I'm not a fan of musicals. For the few I have been able to sit through, I have heard good music or seen a good story, and some have both, but I've never been able able to suspend enough disbelief to enjoy the genre as a whole. I have seen the fairly good Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush (non-musical) version of Les Miserables, but have not seen the musical on the stage. And the prospect of seeing the famous "Les Mis" after reading the book last year did scare me. Why would I want to experience such a rich and powerful story hampered by people belting out songs designed more to show off the voice than to advance the narrative?

But I found this movie -- all two and a half hours of it -- riveting. Sure, a few of the subplots are left out or minimized, but most of the story is left, and director Tom Hooper does a great job holding it all together. The music is moving, and the acting marvelous, and on and on so forth. You can read better analysis of those elements of the film elsewhere, so I'd rather focus on what intrigues me about this production.

I was awestruck with the stark look of some of the songs where the character is singing in front of a bare background with a single object to balance the frame in a visual sense while tilting the picture in a metaphorical sense. For example, Javert (Russell Crowe) sings with a statue of an eagle in the scene, which is appropriate because he represent the obsessive devotion to the law and the presumed -- and oppressive -- order it provides. Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, bares her soul and most of her hair and ragged clothes in singing the beloved "I Dreamed a Dream," focusing not only on the unfairness of her plight, but the emotional poverty she has been driven to. Perhaps Mr. Hooper is a bit heavy-handed. I don't care.

This story is about much more than good triumphing over evil. When I first read the book and at the beginning of the film, I had the sense that the story was about the how good can transform even people we might think have valid reasons to see the world through bitter eyes, such as Jean Valjean and Fantine. But the film and the book are about mercy, not only the showing of mercy, but the varied response to it. Valjean is forever changed by the bishop's decision, and responds by trying, humbly, to be that "better man." On the other hand Javert is twice shown mercy by Valjean and his inability or unwillingness to accept that mercy proves to be his real downfall.

I'm sure there are flaws in this movie that people who know much more about the art of film-making and musical theater can point out. However, this is the first time I have actually felt a musical should win the Oscar. Les Miserables is not merely an enjoyable movie; it can be a compelling experience.

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