I love the stage production of Les Miserables. Maybe not the most fashionable thing for a male in his mid-twenties to say, but that’s how it is. I was in a (school) production of it a while back playing various small parts, as is my inability to sing very well, and pretty much instantly grew very fond of it. I then saw the stage show in London and was blown away by it. I have, therefore, been really rather looking forward to a full musical version finally hitting the big screen.
The plot is a little complicated but I’ll do my best to explain. It’s revolutionary France and Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison on parole. However, he breaks his parole and goes on the run, pursued by the fiercely law-abiding Javert (Russell Crowe). Years later, Valjean, now a town mayor, comes across the dieing Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who turned to prostitution after Valjean failed to stop her getting sacked from her job in a factory. Wracked with guilt, Valjean agrees to take custody of Fantine’s daughter Cosette who is living with corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen & Helena Bonam Carter). Fastforward eight or nine years and French students are planning a revolution. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is still living with Valjean and falls in love with student rebel Marius (Eddie Redmayne) who is also the apple of the Thenardiers’ daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks). Javert continues to pursue Valjean as the students’ uprising begins.
And breathe. A bit longwinded, that, but a short synopsis simply wouldn’t do the story’s scale justice. It’s a story of epic proportion and quite the undertaking for The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper. Les Mis has been brought to the big screen a couple of times but never as a faithful adaptation of the long running stage show, and Hooper wants to hammer home the message that this is pretty new ground for the musical.
For example, when you’re in the theatre, depending on where you’re sitting, everything is somewhere around medium/medium long shot distance, but here Hooper gives us shots and angles you simply don’t get in the theatre – namely long shots and close ups. So many close ups. Most solos are accompanied by a personal space-invading close up, allowing us to get more from the facial expressions that you perhaps would from viewing a stage show. This is a clever tactic but one that becomes a little weary when it’s been done for the 43rd time.
Same goes for the long shot, whether it be static, sweeping, soaring, tracking, etc; we’re constantly being reminded that this is something that film offers us that the stage cannot. However, this is completely at odds with many of the locations which don’t disguise the fact that they’re filmed on a sound stage. There’s actually a claustrophobic feel to many of the locations, giving the impression that there’s nothing beyond what’s not on screen. Whether this is intended as some sort of homage to the stage show is anyone’s guess. This also leads the film to feel like a series of set pieces, rather than one continuous story. On stage, sets and characters come and go seamlessly, but the film-exclusive feature of editing eliminates this, which doesn’t help the fluidity of the story.
Onto the performances. Hugh Jackman is excellent as Valjean, flexing his rather impressive vocal chords and further establishing himself as one of the most depressingly perfect men in the world. Eddie Redmayne is also impressive in his breakthrough role as Marius, whilst Samantha Barks does admirably in the role of Eponine she reprises from the West End show. Much credit also, as has been said many times already, must go to Anna Hathaway. As Fantine she gives a performance so heart-achingly affecting that, although she’s only on screen for a short time, she steals the entire show, her rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, sure to go down as a career-defining moment.
So there’s the good; how about the not so good? Probably best start with Mr Crowe. In short, Russell Crowe can’t really sing, which is pretty important in a musical. Javert should be intimidating, but Crowe’s faux rock star gravelly rasp just doesn’t sit right. He’s trying to hit notes his voice just wasn’t meant to hit. That said, it’s not a complete abomination that many have suggested. Amanda Seyfried must also come under fire in the vocal department. She’s another name to add to the poster but her voice is so shrill at times that only dogs and bats can actually hear her.
Les Miserables isn’t a short film and the second half of the film doesn’t quite grab the attention as consistently as the first, although this issue is rooted in the stage show rather than limited to the film. It does feel ever so slightly on the long side but when you consider you would normally have a 15 minute interval half way through, this is hardly surprising. The majority of the music in the second half doesn’t carry quite as much energy as what’s come before, with many of the key songs being slow, downbeat affairs. The main storyline also shifts dramatically from that of Valjean to the revolution, which feels a little jarring considering we have spent no time invested in this storyline up until then. It’s a long way into the film to introduce such a major story arc.
The good in Les Miserables vastly outweighs the bad and I’m perfectly happy with the way it has been adapted for the screen. Indeed, some of the problems it does have come from the source (by source, I mean the musical, not the Victor Hugo book). It may take some a little time to get used to characters singing literally almost every single line, but that only adds to the experience. It was a directorial masterstroke by Tom Hooper to have all the actors sing live rather than dub them in post production as it really helps convey the emotions of the characters and give it a more realistic feel. Not all works transfer effectively from stage to screen but this is one that was long overdue and, baring the odd falter, has done so with bags of emotion and raw power.