Les Misérables (2012)
157 min Director- Tom Hooper
If you are even a smidgen theatrically bent(oo-er), it is hard not to have at least a basic knowledge of Les Miserables.
RSC musical...yeah yeah yeah....critically mauled when it opened...yada yada yada...gone on to be the most successful musical in history etc etc etc...
I had heard extremely mixed opinions on Les Miz, THE MOVIE-CAL(I'm copyrighting that), ranging from the 'life-changing' to the 'woeful misjudgement'. I was nervous before it started, as I out and out admit it- I LOVE Les Miserables the stage musical. I am a fan. I know every word of it. It is almost perfect. Seriously, almost PERFECT. It stirs up the kind of irrational, overwhelming emotions in me like few other stage productions have managed to do.
'Look down, look down, don't look 'em in the eye...', sings Hugh Jackmans' Jean Valjean at the top of the movie.
Would these be the very words going through my head when I bumped into friends of mine who'd appeared in the film?
I hoped not...
From the moment the film started, with a fantastically impressive CG assisted sweeping opening shot taking us into a living hell of a prison work camp in torrential rain, set to the (still thrilling after 27 years) opening bars of the 'prologue', my hopes were high. Jackman is reassuringly rough and ready, a man beaten down by his 19 years hard labour for the tragi-comically sentenced crime of stealing a loaf of bread. Right off the bat the relationship between Valjean and Javert (Russel Crowe) is clearly established, and, importantly, is strongly maintained throughout.
A trained singer and seasoned musical theatre star, Jackman excels in the part. This won't be the role that defines his career- a certain metal clawed mutant has claimed that accolade- but it is his best screen performance yet. Expect awards season to be a 2 horse race between him and Daniel Day-Lewis. His 'Soliloquay', a mere 10 minutes in, is a highlight, devastatingly acted, at times it is to hell with singing, and quite rightly, that's not what it's all about, it is pure emotion. A cathartic release, ending with another truly epic shot sweeping us off a cliff, across the ocean, and forward in time to a grimy street full of desperate, dirty unfortunates.
|Anne Hathaway as Fantine|
It is here we meet Fantine, played by Anne Hathaway, giving the film its standout performance. Forced into a life on the streets, having sold her hair, her teeth, and her body, she is a broken woman as she all but whispers the words 'I dreamed a dream in time gone by...'. What follows these words is overwhelming. A virtuosic piece of acting through song, elevating the potential of the movie musical to heights it has seldom achieved in many many a year. Director Tom Hooper knows how to capture a good thing too. He doesn't cut away even once, even- bravely- sticking on Hathaway in brutal close-up for the whole song. A young woman, head shaven, screaming her woes through tears in extreme close-up, it was hard not to see the comparison with Renee Jeanne Falconetti in the 1927 film 'The Passion of Joan of Ark', and I wonder very much whether this was the directors' inspiration for the handling of this key scene. Sob inducing stuff.
So good is Hathaway that her brief screen time is enough to leave its mark for the rest of the film, and as the story moves on, we see her daughter rescued from the hands of the vile Thenardiers, played almost entirely for laughs, (but maybe a tad safe?) by triple barrelled duo Sasha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. 'Master of the House' is a joy, and pleasingly for fans of the show, the raucous, heightened theatricality is maintained from stage to the big screen, and it really works. Tick.
At this point the new song 'Suddenly' arrives. It is decent, and I can see its benefits-not least making the writers eligible for a 'Best original song' Oscar- it does strengthen the 'adoptive Father-Daughter' relationship nicely, but it does feel shoehorned slightly. The daughter of which I speak is Amanda Seyfrieds' Cosette. If this were not a musical, you'd have to say that she was the perfect choice for the role. But it is, and therefore, casting someone with a voice that sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks' dog whistle is not the best idea. I know it is harsh, but this was one of the only things that actually grated on me, so whilst her performance was great, sadly her voice was, for me, jarring.
Her love interest is played with shaky-headed-when-he-sings earnestness by Eddie Redmayne. And he is a fine choice for the role. A grown up, but not quite a man, his Marius is a vulnerable, passionate ball of emotion, and whether it is wooing Cosette through the garden gates or torch song-ing it up with audition pianists favourite 'Empty Chairs At Empty Tables', he hits all the right notes vocally and tonally, and we really care about his journey, which can't always be said in relation to the character in the stage show.
Gazing longingly at him is Eponine. Samantha Barks is well versed by now in the role of cute girl in beret, but the big screen is a whole different ball game. In another single shot, 'no cutaway' number, the camera leads her through the rain drenched streets of Paris as the agony of unrequited love seeps, then positively bursts out of her, as she delivers another standout moment full of beautiful heartache, gut-wrenching honesty, and kick-ass vocals. Indeed, her final screen moment, the duet, 'A Little Fall of Rain', brought a tear to my eye. A star is born.
There is fine support from the rest of the revolting french students (no offence), with Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, and Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche turning in particularly strong efforts. The latter in particular, proving just what 'Little People' can do, especially when putting a certain Inspector Javert in his place. Ah yes, Russell Crowe....
Whilst Crowe seems to be perfect for the role, with a rare physical power and intimidating intensity befitting the to the letter of the law Inspector, and has even had some musical theatre experience in his younger years, you can't escape the fact that he, on many occasions, looks uncomfortable whilst singing. No doubting he is good here at times-and while not the best singer, he could be worse- he is without question miscast. Missed opportunities are rife, and key moments such as the beautifully constructed 'Stars', played out on a moonlit rooftop somehow fail to come alive. Clearly not through any compositional fault; the direction, shot selection, lighting, design, cinematography are all beautiful. It is the performance which falls flat, and given what the number clearly could have been with a different actor, you'd have to think that someone better suited to the full demands of the role could have- and should have- been found.
The film, like the stage show, does suffer a little from final act drag. From Javert ending up in the water, through to the final moments of Valjeans life, there is not a great deal of plot, but still a fair bit tying up to do, it all feels a bit sullen, so it is a shame the Thenardiers' final moments are edited a touch heavily, as they have a brilliant knack on stage of appearing at just the right time when a big laugh is needed, and are robbed of the chance to fully entertain here. Such sacrifices I'm sure had to be made purely for running time sake if nothing else, with the final cut clocking in at a whopping 157 minutes.
Minor grumbles though, and I personally approve of the running time. You couldn't cut down this story much more without losing something essential. What makes Les Miserables great are the many stories which make up the eventual sum of its parts. Good on them for not bowing down to potential studio snippings.
I must round off this review by giving credit to the stars of the show. The music, lyrics, and orchestrations. It is the combination of these 3 elements which produce in me the most irrational, overwhelming emotions and feelings of awe. To me, they are one of the finest examples in history of how it is done. No matter how many times I hear this score, I still seem to be moved by it. And not just the sections which are intentionally emotive. To me, it is the quality of the work that grabs me so hard. Add to that the characters, the story, the performances and direction, and you have something very special.
The leap from stage to screen is often difficult to get right, but this is an example of how it can work beautifully. With the raw edge achieved by the cast singing live on set, this avoids the polished, safe feel of the film it could have easily been. The rousing final chorus of 'Do You Hear The People Sing' will ensure there's not a dry eye in the house.
It isn't perfect, but it very nearly is.
4 FASSBENDERS (OUT OF 5)