Thursday, November 12, 2015

Birthday Take: Anne Hathaway in "Les Miserables" (2012)

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Anne Hathaway
Born: November 12, 1982 (33 years old) 
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress (won) as Fantine in Les Miserables

The Take

There are a lot of things that people don't like about director Tom Hooper's 2012 take of Les Miserables. For some, its the sheer audacity to make an almost three hour film where people sing their emotions. Others didn't like the take in general, taking to task the direction by which the film didn't use space all that well. I, for one, personally loved the film and remain in a minority who defend it. I like it for its raw energy and what it attempts to do with an already exhausting musical. Sure, I do think that some direction is pretty questionable, but I admire it as a work of the director, finding a ways to turn massive scope into something personal. If you disagree, that's fine. I don't suspect that too many people *love* this film, anyways.

Yet the one thing that's generally agreed upon by everyone is the performance of Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Much like in the stage version and even in the Victor Hugo text, Fantine was always the compelling figure because she was tragic. She sacrificed her body and dignity in order to clothe and feed her child, of whom she never got to see in a cognizant state. It's the ultimate miserable character in a story that translates its title to "The Miserables." She is an unfortunate victim of the system in a lot of ways. It was true in the book, and it was translated to stage with an equal effect. Fantine is also absent from over 2/3 of the story's running time - which either means that people have tuned out, or the other characters are just poorly written to non-musical fans.

Of course, there's having a miserable character and being a sympathetic character. What makes Hathaway a particularly shining performance is that she embodies the character beautifully. There is, after all, the show stopping number "I Dreamed a Dream," which details her pains of not finding happiness in this life. It's impossible to ignore, especially as Hooper's intimacy is effectively brought closer into Hathaway's personal space. She is seen tearing up, becoming an unglamorous in the process. As much as this is a cheap way to get Oscars consideration, she goes the extra mile by throwing in a cracking voice, a withering face, and the just the absence of hope. She loved the daughter she never got to see grow up. It's the biggest tragedy, even if Jean Valjean's journey from prisoner to redemption is a stronger focus in the story. Even Fantine's daughter, Cosette, gets more mileage. Yet everyone remembers Fantine and her struggle.

The general attitude of the performance seemed contradictory to the actual awards season, of which Hathaway seemed to garner unanimous hate from the internet. While fellow Oscar contender Jennifer Lawrence was at the height of her likability, Hathaway seemed to be accused of being too vapid and fake. As someone who has been a fan of her since The Princess Diaries, I cannot quite agree on this. Yes, she is probably too poised and opening your acceptance speech with "It came true" may draw the wrong reaction, but she is still a performer who takes her craft seriously. I personally love that she can draw the line between prestige and blockbuster work with the best of them. I definitely rank her performance in Les Miserables among her best, and I'm mostly glad to see her win for a role that required so much effort.

I am unsure where the general disinterest in her came from, but I don't know that it feels earned. It shouldn't impact your thoughts on her work, either. I think that she has continually grown more promising with each passing year, especially following her first Oscar nomination for Rachel Getting Married. She is fearless when she wants to be and funny when it's called for. I understand those that don't like Les Miserables because of personal tastes, but it's hard to ignore the value and power that Hathaway brought to her role, making you feel for a character that's written to be downtrodden at every turn. It could easily be handled poorly. Yet Hathaway does it with such power. I cannot wait till we get a performance like that from her again.

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