I was very lucky to see the Original Cast productions of the musical Les Misérables in both London and New York when I was still a teenager. The music and songs blew me away, I’d never seen anything quite this operatic, yet genuinely human and real. It was a mile away from remote, unintelligible operas with seemingly over-wrought acting from enormously healthy women playing apparently destitute women dying of consumption.
And so the musical rested in my subconscious for 26 years (ouch). I never saw it again, I never watched the anniversary concerts or bought the CDs. Every time I heard a song it resonated with me, like any other much-loved album or song from my youth just comes back to me, lyrics and tunes intact.
There has been an enormous amount of hype surrounding the new film production of Les Miz. Tom Hooper is fresh from his success with The King’s Speech and has an all-star cast to carry the songs. From the outset we were promised an intimacy and intensity of performance as he had used hand-held, extreme close-ups for most of the songs, as if we were almost sat on the stage/set with the performers.
Rachel and I went to the film with high expectations, me because I know the source material is pretty fantastic, Rachel because she has almost no knowledge of any of it, but has heard such strong recommendations from me about the music, and from others about the film. We were advised by many, many people to take plenty of tissues. I now seemingly have the ability to cry while watching Strictly Come Dancing or The Great British BakeOff, so knowing how much I love the music, I assumed that tears were inevitable.
So why, during, immediately afterwards and in the few days since we saw the film, were we largely unmoved? There were a few tears for me during Anne Hathaway’s amazing rendition of I Dreamed a Dream and her death scene, and again in the parallel scenes at the very end, but that’s all. Is this a problem of hyping up expectations, is it a failure of execution, an inherent problem with this musical?
I came to the film with lots of history, Rachel with none, but our reactions were pretty similar, which makes me Reckon it’s not the source material, but something about the film.
The adaptation is pretty faultless. There are additional transition scenes and titles to help explain the jumps in time and location that on stage are only really dramatised by a (nonetheless impressive) series of rotating sets. The locations are fantastic and there are wonderful examples of taking the single-stage enclosed feel of the musical into genuinely breathtaking moments, including the opening sequence in the docks, the truly nasty, grubby scenes in the alleyways and brothels of Montreuil, and the Parisian barricades. Hooper’s never afraid to let the camera swoop, even (or especially?) when characters are precariously positioned, like Javert singing to the Stars from a parapet.
I Reckon the choice to film all the key songs in close-up is inspired. It truly brings out the nuances in performance and can add levels of intensity that simply aren’t possible from 60 feet away in a theatre audience. This is especially true when the vocal performances can stand the scrutiny of the camera’s unblinking attention; which brings me to the very good and less good parts of the film…
Anne Hathaway has been rightly praised for her performance. Fantine is nailed-on Oscar-bait as a role, unremittingly tragic and almost entirely innocent, she only features for a few scenes in the very first act, and has two amazing songs, dies slowly and is physically humiliated in pretty much every way as she sells her hair, teeth and sex to send money for the care of her illegitimate daughter (who, tragedy upon tragedy, we later learn is being treated as a slave despite the money Fantine provides…). But to be fair to Anne Hathaway, she absolutely knocks her songs out of the park. She’s fantastic, a highlight of the film.
Just as good, if not better as he has more of a character arc, is Eddie Redmayne as Marius. I’ve previously been lukewarm to him, as he spent most of Birdsong wistfully or miserably staring into the middle-distance. Here he is a revelation, getting over not only Marius’ conflict between his aristocratic upbringing and revolutionary zeal, but also his romantic heroism and later guilt. Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was a brilliant scene here, a rare example of being than the stage version I remember. He has an amazing tenor voice that held up both in quite numbers like A Little Fall of Rain as well as the bigger choruses. I Reckon he deserves at least as much award-attention as Anne Hathaway.
Which brings me to the executional problems that make Les Miz less-than-overwhelming for me…
The comic-relief duo of Monsieur et Madame Thénardier, as played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, started off OK, but lost me by the end. They are important characters, as they link lots of the scenes together, and provide some relief within the gloom and despair of the Parisian poor. But their scenes focused so heavily on the visual that the performances were lost. Whirling cameras and intricate choreography crammed in so many comic moments that the brilliant lyrics of Master of the House were almost entirely lost, seemingly an afterthought to the visual trickery on display. The focus on their changing costumes and accents simply distracted, and by the end I was wishing they’d shut up. Pantomime caricatures, but not in a good way.
Russell Crowe has been pilloried for his apparent inability to sing. It’s not that he can’t sing, but that (in the wonderful words of a friend), never has a performance been so dedicated to mezzo-forte. Javert is implacable, monolithic, relentless and single-minded in his pursuit of The Law and his version of Order in the Universe, and Crowe more-than-manages that physically, but his voice simply can’t command the fear and presence Javert is supposed to have. His voice simply doesn’t quite get there, which contrasts clearly with many of the more supporting roles, especially Aaron Tveit as Enjolras and Samantha Barks as Eponine.
And here’s why I differ from many reviewers, in that I don’t think Hugh Jackman’s voice is all that. His performance in the central role of Jean Valjean was terrific. He looked awful as the bitter convict in the opening sequences, and his transformation to reformed citizen & mayor was fantastic. His emotional range was excellent, except his voice doesn’t quite manage with the very tough demands of the role, and especially not in extreme closeup. In the upper range (and there’s quite a bit of that), it loses the power and resonance it has wonderfully in the lower register. Sorry if this is being picky, but this is, you know, a musical, and his thin, full-throated vibrato really took me out of the songs in a way that the intimate camerawork was expressly designed not to.
This was most obvious in my favourite song in the whole story, Valjean’s desperate prayer for the life of Marius, Bring Him Home.
After Fantine’s tragedy, this is the number that should bring the house down, to complete silence for the duration, and then in floods of tears afterwards. I was lucky to see Colm Wilkinson perform this. Sorry, Hugh, for all the extraordinary talents you do have, you’re no Colm Wilkinson.
The film of Les Misérables is by no means a failure. It has great spectacle and some fabulous moments, but its inconsistency is a major weakness. While the locations and settings are often wonderful, they do take you out of the immediate action in the way a single-stage doesn’t. There are no pauses between scenes like there can be on stage in a live performance, so it can feel like an onrushing treadmill, and despite the ambition to capture live performances, these don’t always work, sometimes with major consequences for the film.