At this time of year, it feels good to unplug the computer, stash your electronic devices away and crack open something heavy and dense. While this could be a mega-size box of chocolate (or bottle of bourbon), it’s just possible our senses crave something more demanding, more literary and Old World.
Yes, it’s time to leave your comfortably heated room and wander the dark, freezing, cobblestone streets of centuries ago. Throw yourself into deep and daunting relationships with characters who wear corsets and carry swords. Here are two films that show you how.
Victor Hugo’s 19th century epic tale of ex-convict Jean Valjean has more theatrical connotations than cinematic, but this grand and ambitious work by Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”) just might tip the scales.
“Les Miserables” is Hooper’s movie adaptation of the musical of the same name and is distinctive for its utter sincerity. The acting is all rather one-dimensional, but on the other hand it must be difficult to convey a whole lot of depth and sing your heart out at the same time (never mind the occasional off-key moment). Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as his nemesis Inspector Javert let rip their singing talents with sophisticated abandonment. (Crowe has been singing in rock bands since the 1980s and Jackman has had a long career in musicals, including his 2004 Tony Award-winning performance on Broadway in “The Boy from Oz.”) Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway’s tremulous Fantine is simply heart-wrenching.
Les miserables means “the wretched” and the misery suffered by the majority of people in 19th century France is played out here with rigorous and reverent devotion to everything from production design to the deep creases of fatigue on Valjean’s seen-it-all visage.
Jackman may not bring anything new to Valjean’s character but he doesn’t diminish it either, and becomes the incarnation of Hugo’s greatest creation: a man who spends 20 years in prison for stealing a hunk of bread, then refashions himself into a prosperous factory owner. But throughout his life, Valjean could never shake off the stalking shadow of the sadistic Javert.
Valjean’s life overlaps with Fantine’s when she is fired from his factory. The fate of Fantine is typical of poor women of the period — and she spends most of the movie with her one and only dress in tatters, bare feet bleeding and hair chopped off (she sells it for money). Fantine lives for one thing: her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seifreid), whose fate she entrusts to Valjean after an unfortunate turn of events.
Between Hooper’s direction and Hathaway’s acting, no tear duct in the audience is left dry, as they pull all the stops on portraying the dire plight of a 19th century single mother with nowhere to turn. Fantine’s signature song “I Dreamed a Dream” will stay with the viewer for a long, long time.
To quote William Shakespeare, “All the world’s a stage and the men and women merely players,” but here’s a movie that takes his observation to a whole other level.
Directed by Roland Emmerich, who brought the world “Independence Day” and “Godzilla,” this is way out of his usual turf of mega-scale, sci-fi spectacle. “Anonymous” is a period drama, or more specifically an indictment against the general belief that Shakespeare penned his own plays and sonnets. “Nay,” says “Anonymous” — as Emmerich and screenwriter John Orloff portray Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as a clueless, spiritless oaf, the son of a glover and completely lacking in social graces. He is not very articulate either, which is damning to his career as two-bit actor, but less so as a drunken letch.
Enter Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), Earl of Oxford. Just as Emmerich and Orloff really have it in for the bumbling Shakespeare, they fall over themselves to draw the Earl as a suave, slightly cynical, brilliant man-about-London, presiding over the Elizabethan Court as well as The Globe Theater.
Ifans -who used to play clumsy losers himself not so long ago — comes off here as a majestic, charismatic, aristocratic wonder so jaded with worldy success he’d rather hoist the burden of literary genius onto Will then sit back and enjoy the result. Political power plays come into the equation as well — the very well-connected Edward is pushing for his friend, the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid), to succeed the throne of the aging Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), while Elizabeth’s father-and-son team of advisers, William and Robert Cecil (David Thewlis and Edward Hogg), are vying for King James of Scotland to land that position. It just wouldn’t do for Edward to be too conspicuous, especially as Elizabeth is tightening the screws on suitable theater material performed at The Globe. So Edward vents his inner frustration via secret jabs written into his plays (the humpbacked Richard III is a caricature of Cecil Sr. for example), and rubs ink-stained fingers on his black cape so no one will see.
The veracity of Edward being the real Shakespeare aside (the movie claims he wrote and starred in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the age of 9), “Anonymous” aims for sheer visual pleasure. Emmerich’s recreation of Elizabethan London, where courtly splendor was offset by the starving masses and the stench rising from the mud and manure clotting the streets, is expert and extravagant. Don’t miss the aerial scene of Elizabeth’s funeral procession making its way elegantly along a frozen Thames — it’s one of the prime reasons for ditching your sofa and getting to the theater.