Les Misérables Movie Review 0 103

Les Miserables movie review

Based on the massively successful and long-enduring West End musical (itself based on the Victor Hugo novel), Les Misérables follows the life of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) in 19th Century France, a former prisoner who breaks his parole and is then hunted for years by the ruthless policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). After coming to the aid of down-on-her-luck factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and agreeing to look after and bring up her daughter Cosette, he continues to try and evade capture among the turmoil of the Paris Uprising of 1832.

I have to admit straight away that I’ve never seen the stage musical upon which this is based but it’s a testament to director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and screenwriter William Nicholson (Gladiator) that it’s still a powerful and compelling musical experience in its own right without needing to have prior knowledge.

Hooper in particular should be commended for taking on this mammoth cinematic production and controlling it, even with its occasionally free-wheeling plot that threatens to ramble. Unlike most film musicals, Hooper has chosen to film the singing live, that is he had the actors sing while the cameras were rolling as opposed to having them mime and then record the singing later. This is a very ballsy move as it so easily could have backfired into a mess of clunky transitions and plain bad singing. However, thanks to strong musical and physical performances from the cast that risk has entirely paid off.

Speaking of which, much of the film’s power comes from its cast. It’s the kind of ensemble of faces and performances that you can’t quite take your eyes off throughout. We first see Jackman with black teeth, dirt covered face and patchy hair, a broken and punished man sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread. His transformation both physically and performance-wise into the successful businessman is quite impressive indeed, and his performance is an emotional anchor for the audience throughout.

Hathaway, who’s actually in it a lot less than you might expect, is astonishing as a mother desperate but unable to fend for herself and her daughter. Her signature scene, a Passion of Joan of Arc-esque plain shot of her as she emotionally belts out I Dreamed a Dream, is a highlight of the film and allows Hathaway to linger long in the mind even when other characters take over the story. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are another of the film’s highlights as a cheeky pickpocket husband and wife duo, providing the welcome comedic relief from the rest of the misery. The only major weak link in the chain is Russell Crowe whose singing voice is not so much bad as just odd, resembling shouting half-way in tune more than anything else.

At 160 minutes the film is overly long. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a film of that length if it can justify it by sustaining a pace and, of course, the audience’s attention. A good 20-30 mins – which were either devoted to entire, arguably unnecessary subplots or scenes which didn’t need to go on for as long – could have been easily trimmed to make for a tighter, more cohesive film.

In order to get the most out of Les Misérables you have to submit yourself to the particular style of musical that it is where even conversations are made lyrical. It’s not going to convert anyone adverse to musicals in general, but for those willing to go with it it’s a rewarding journey. It may lean into bombastic and arguably indulgent territory on occasion but that’s all part of an experience where deep human emotions are realized as much in detail as in the bigger picture. This is a brave, bold technical feat of scale and rousing power made all the more effective by the diverse but similarly excellent performances.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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