Some of the year’s best movies, still playing at first-run theaters, are set in the past, which has made the holiday season delightful for fans of historical cinema.
The most recent opening is “Les Misérables,” adapted from the much-beloved 1980 stage musical. Director Tom Hooper (who won an Oscar for “The King’s Speech”) has produced a richly textured and brilliantly realistic setting of early 19th century Paris, with its narrow cobbled streets and furniture-heaped ramparts where the young revolutionaries take up arms with the impoverished “miserables” of the title.
The story was written in 1862 by Victor Hugo: A commoner, Jean Valjean, has been imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. When he is finally released, he violates parole by assuming a new identity. He is hunted year after year by the police commander, Inspector Javert.
Hugh Jackman, the fine Australian actor, does an outstanding job as Valjean, imparting depth to the role and a brilliant baritone to the songs. Anne Hathaway is also outstanding as Fantine, whose daughter, Cosette, Valjean raises when Fantine dies. Eddie Redmayne is excellent as Cosette’s love interest, the revolutionary Marius.
The movie, which set a weekday Christmas record at the box office, has many spectacular pluses: the epic sweep of the story, a strong cast and half a dozen wonderful numbers beautifully sung. It also has some conspicuous problems. Some of the editing is jumpy and elliptical. Because the musical on which the movie is based is “sung-through” like an opera, there is very little dialogue.
The audience is subjected to long spells of less-than-enthralling recitatives and songs.
Perhaps as an antidote, the movie uses intimate close-ups while the actors are singing, which has the effect of being both suffocating and boring. Russell Crowe sings and performs his part with little conviction. Since a formidably evil and relentless Javert is necessary to drive the story’s tension, Mr. Crowe’s one-dimensional performance is a major stumbling block. At a running time of 158 minutes the movie feels overly long.
Nevertheless, the sweeping spectacle and some great songs carry the movie.
On a smaller scale, “Argo” recreates the daring rescue of six Americans who managed to flee the U.S. embassy in Iran during the hostage takeover of 1979. Ben Affleck gives a strong performance as Tony Mendez, the real-life CIA operative who engineered the rescue. Even though most moviegoers know the outcome, the film builds dramatically toward the tense finale, when the Americans [spoiler alert], pretending to be members of a Canadian movie company investigating desert exteriors, must navigate through tight airport security to bring off their escape. For those who prefer their historical movies to contain a degree of accuracy, it is disheartening to learn that, in real life, the departure through the Tehran airport was flawless and without incident.
The new version of “Anna Karenina” starring Keira Knightley in the title role is a superb adaptation of Tolstoy’s great novel set in late 19th-century Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Aside from strong performances and an excellent script by Tom Stoppard, the movie has a highly unusual dramatic structure. Much of the action surrounding Anna’s affair with Count Vronsky is staged in a theater. The film is bifurcated, with the artificial social constraints arrayed against Anna played in the artificial setting of the stage while the naturalistic family scenes are mostly filmed in the expected realistic setting. It makes for a highly unusual but no less compelling story.
And finally, in a class by itself, is Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” with Daniel Day-Lewis giving an astonishing performance as the president bent on passing the 13th amendment banishing slavery.
The rich script by Tony Kushner; the scrupulous recreation of 1865 Washington; the outstanding supporting performances by (among others) Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook and James Spader; and the tense drama of the vote itself yield a picture, like a president, for the ages.