For the first two months of 2013, I made a point of seeing the nominees for Best Picture at the 85th Annual Academy Awards. Some people, more hardcore than me, see every film nominated for any Oscar, but that is expensive and time-consuming. I therefore restrict myself to seeing the Best Picture nominees. Between 2003 and 2008, I managed all five nominees, but since the Academy expanded the list of nominees to up to ten that’s become more difficult.
Interestingly, whereas in previous years most of the Best Picture nominees were released in awards season, between December and February, the expanded list of nominees has meant that films from earlier in the year receive more consideration (and if you didn’t happen to catch them you need to wait for home release). The Hurt Locker, Best Picture winner of 2009, was released in August in the UK, and nominees Inception and The Kids Are All Right were released in July and October, respectively. This year, most of the nominees were released since October, including the eventual winner, Argo. Perhaps we can credit canny Oscar campaigns for the win here.
Thus far, I’ve only reviewed Zero Dark Thirty. This was mainly due to the reactions the film had received as I expected they were incorrect and unfair (I was right). I was utterly captivated by Zero Dark Thirty and, were I a member of the AMPAS, I would have voted for it to win. Life of Pi and Argo, the actual winner, I saw and reviewed last year before they were nominated. But what about the rest (Amour, sadly, does not make an appearance as I am yet to see it)?
Les Misérables and Silver Linings Playbook
Les Misérables is a film of grand scales: the scale of the French Revolution; the scale of the oppression upon the wretched; the scale of the emotion that swells in rebellion; the scale of the volume delivered by singers with slight frames. And yet, I found the experience somewhat underwhelming. This might have been a matter of expectations (which seems familiar) – the trailers for Les Misérables had me wanting to burst into song and I hoped to do exactly that at the cinema, Code of Conduct be damned! I didn’t, and nor did I feel moved to do so, as the different narrative strands were not drawn together well enough to draw me into the world of the film.
Les Misérables is a patchy film. Some parts are weak, such as Russell Crowe’s singing and Tom Hooper’s direction. Other parts are very good, including the performances of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, the production design and the costumes. The cinematography is intermittently effective: various shots present an unbalanced frame for what seem to be excessively long takes. A character’s head occupies half the frame, but the other half is empty, apparently so the viewer can admire the wallpaper. Whatever the reasons for this, it is highly distracting. At other points though, the cinematography is very effective, especially during the film’s standout sequence, the number “I Dreamed a Dream” performed by Fantine (Hathaway). Presented in only three shots, the majority of this heart-rending rendition is mostly delivered in a single take, with extremely shallow focus that puts Hathaway’s nose and tear-filled eyes in focus, but her ears out of focus. Perhaps the purpose of this is to express Fantine’s fading out of existence, disappearing along with her dream. Either way, it is effective.
This sequence, of course, would have been nothing without the song itself, which is very moving. Indeed, the best feature of Les Misérables is the music, an extraordinary symphony of voices (most of then good) and instruments that carry one above the shortcomings and summon us all to the barricades. Yet this is something of a problem. If the best thing about an adaptation of a musical is the music, then something in the adaptation is inadequate. A film adaptation, especially of something that already exists in a dramatic form, needs to do something uniquely cinematic in order to work as a film. The rousing sequences of Les Misérables are medleys, with different singers contributing to a chorus that rises to a crescendo. Cinema is ideal for such a sequence as editing can cut between different people and locations with an ever-increasing tempo that exacerbates the tension. Yet Les Misérables does not capitalise on this opportunity except to follow the lead of the music itself, such as in the emotional climax of the film, “One Day More”. For that moment, the film reaches the heights to which it aspires throughout. Elsewhere, though, director Tom Hooper appears to follow the music’s lead and simply transpose the musical to the screen, which can leave the viewer feeling they might as well have seen it on stage. Come the Oscars ceremony, a medley was performed, with Jackman, Hathaway, Crowe, along with Eddie Marsden, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, and seemingly the entirety of the cast, on stage at the Dolby Theater, and it was very impressive. The film was impressive as well, but only in parts.
Overall, Les Misérables fails to deliver emotion as sweeping as its scale. By contrast, Silver Linings Playbook is an acutely observed, intimate comedy drama. Writer-director David O. Russell allows his actors to play out long scenes that veer from funny to painful to sweet. I have written previously that I am more interested in plot than character, but in a narrative like this, the development of the characters and their relationships is the plot, so in order for the film to work, the characters need to be engaging in themselves and in their interactions. As Pat, Bradley Cooper is a wonderfully sympathetic lead, by turns loveable and infuriating (much like people in our own lives). In her Oscar-winning performance as Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence matches him for wit, social awkwardness and forthrightness, the two of them creating one of the most sympathetic screen couples of recent memory. Crucially, they are both awkward, Pat because he is bi-polar and has poor social skills, Tiffany because she has little patience for social niceties. In an early scene, Tiffany tells Pat that they are both “different”, and should exult in this.
The awkwardness of the central characters is important because Silver Linings Playbook highlights and revels in the joys of being different, as the oddball couple bond through peculiar conversations, especially an excruciating non-date that involves Raisin Bran and tea. The time Pat and Tiffany spend together feels like time lived, their relationship noticeably growing as they learn more about each other. It grows through Pat’s obsession with being fit, getting his wife back, reconnecting with his old life and even his mantra of “looking for a silver lining”. It grows through Tiffany learning to trust another person, her soundproofed dance studio a manifestation of her shielded heart. Tiffany is a glorious creation, Lawrence giving her the perfect balance of sass, sweetness and sexiness, combined with intelligence, pain and ambition. She isn’t a typical romantic comedy heroine, which is another reason to exult.
The developing relationship between Pat and Tiffany is also the means by which all the characters rebuild their lives. Pat’s quest for a silver lining is to build his life out of the fragments he begins the film with, and the same is true of Danny (Chris Tucker, in a remarkably low-key performance). Pat, Snr. (Robert De Niro) seeks to rebuild his life after being laid off, both through his bookmaking as well as reconnecting with his son. Similarly, Dolores (Jackie Weaver) wants harmony in her family. A useful counterpoint is provided by Pat’s friend Jake (Shea Whigham), who is trying to maintain his own standard of living by working too hard and constantly trying to please his demanding wife Veronica (Julia Stiles). Through Jake and Pat, Snr., the film references the recession, echoing other recent comedies such as Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids. Like these other genre entries, Silver Linings Playbook does not allow social realism to overpower the drama, but the real world reference adds to the film’s great strength: everyone’s problems are relatable. The characters and their situations are presented as familiar, rather than suffering from something specific and incomprehensible for the inexperienced. For the grieving Tiffany and the bi-polar Pat, their problems are simply more acute than those of the other characters.
The film’s trump card is to use the cliché of dancing in a fresh and innovative way. The dance sequences emphasise the work and discipline involved, rather than the sensual and sexual dimension – this is Dynamic Dancing rather than Dirty Dancing. Pat and Tiffany do not draw closer because dancing substitutes for sex, but because they work towards a common goal and build a relationship through this shared endeavour. This creates a parallel with all the characters who are trying to build something – as Pat and Tiffany get closer to the dance competition, the investment of the other characters and the viewer is increased. The viewer is drawn into the development of this project, which adds significance to the final performance. And, remarkably, the film’s climax actually made me care about the result of an American football game.
Silver Linings Playbook is the epitome of bittersweet, balancing the sentiment with suffering. Les Misérables, oddly, works hard to ladle on the pain but is only intermittently successful. This comes down to direction, and I fully applaud the Academy for nominating Russell for Achievement in Directing but leaving Hooper out. Hooper fails to deliver the precision that made The King’s Speech so impressive, while Russell not only focuses on the actions of his characters but also allows his scenes and actors to keep going, much as he did in The Fighter. It seems Russell will be uniting the stars he has directed to Oscar-winning performances in his future project based on the Abscam investigation. Mr Hooper, maybe try something smaller next time?