Les Miserables  (2012)    70/100

Rating :   70/100                                                                     158 Min        12A

A tremendous rendition of the stage musical that achieved that rarest of things in the cinema – a rapturous round of applause, a perhaps even more impressive feat given the viewing in question was a matinée. A lot of the music has been echoing with increasing vigour around the scaly skull of The Red Dragon since that viewing and, with no sign of this abating any time soon, I feel somewhat mysteriously compelled to go and invest further in the onscreen majesty of the ensemble cast.

It opens boldly, in France 1815 with the imprisoned Jean ValJean (Hugh Jackman) and his fellow members of a chain gang hauling a huge ship in to dock, all under the watchful eye of Javert (Russel Crowe). These two begin as the protagonists: one a desperate and unjustly punished man looking to begin again, the other a relentless hunter serving a law that is above questioning. They mirror divides in French society at the time, and the story fleshes out around the conflict between the two of them and, eventually, the other characters that come into their lives – leading ultimately to a youthful band of would-be revolutionaries and the fates that befall them in their struggle to uphold the ideals of liberty.

It is, of course, the film adaptation of the enormously popular and successful stage show first shown in Paris in 1980, with music from Claude-Michel Schönberg, itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. Schonberg composed an entirely new song for the film, ‘Suddenly’, and the whole shoot was done with live performances from the cast rather than lip synching to a pre-recording, which no doubt adds to the fresh and emotional feel of the film and is extremely rare in a made for cinema musical, a decision which has been unanimously praised by the cast.

The quality of the singing is high generally, with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine, a young mother out of luck, rather like all of the characters which can be somewhat inferred from the title) both garnering themselves Oscar nods for their performances. Just as she did with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, Hathaway proves her detractors wrong by becoming one of the best things about the film, indeed the movie is now a hot contender to take the best film Oscar in February just as she is to take best supporting actress. The role sees her real hair cut off during one scene, and scenes with actresses having their hair removed are generally pretty memorable for the raw emotion they evoke (Natalie Portman in ‘V for Vendetta’ 05, as another example).

Russel Crowe might surprise a few given the overwhelmingly negative reception of his singing, as although he doesn’t have the range of some of the others, and I think at least twice in the film doesn’t reach, nor carry very well, the note he’s going for, and it is noticeable, he uses the range he does have to good effect, and it matches his character perfectly. After all, most of the cast, including Jackman, have their comically off moments, but the whole film gels together nicely, and is it really necessary to have your rugged, bloodhound lawman singing perfectly like an angelic canary? Before appearing in TV and film, he began his performing career on the stage in musicals such as ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ and ‘Blood Brothers’, even fronting his own band ‘Russ Le Roq’, and here he gives a solid, commanding performance, so good on director Tom Hooper and co. for not casting someone who may have demoted Javert to the detestable, and yet popular, realms of a dilettante boy band/X factor contestant, although casting someone who had played the role successfully onstage would probably have been a better idea.

Some of the actors from the West End production, though, have happily made it into the film, one of the most impressive of whom is Samantha Barks, who plays Eponine the daughter of local crooks, and not only has a wonderful singing voice, and is drop-dead gorgeous, but appears to be able to act too. Also worthy of note is Aaron Tveit playing Enjolras, friend and comrade in arms to love interest Marius, played by Eddie Redmayne. Tveit seems to be a very natural singer, and would have been much better cast as Marius as, although Redmayne’s singing is pretty skilful, he at times looks like he’s going to explode with the effort it exacts from him, compared to the completely relaxed Tveit beside him.

This leads to the film’s biggest downfall, Redmayne himself, who was entirely the wrong person for the role athough he definitely puts his whole heart into it, and the introduction of the love story arc between Marius and Cosette. There is a large presumption on the part of the narrative, in that Marius and Cosette glimpse one another briefly on the street and instantly fall head over heels for each other, and we are expected to invest in this relationship as the light of hope in an otherwise bleak and ‘miserable’ landscape. We don’t, of course, as it’s nonsense. It needed one, or a few more scenes outwith the normal musical to make it more believable onscreen and perhaps to dramatise a little more of the politics going on; eg. Marius is brought to his lowest point, whether through despair or violence in his fight against the oppressive state, whereupon, as if heaven sent, Cosette appears to help him out, and she should physically do something not just bat her eyelashes at him, and thus, spirit rekindled and perhaps life saved, when he now fights he fights for her. Something along those lines.

The set design suffers slightly here too, as the film leads towards a fight on the streets of Paris the stage is set for a bloody climax and yet it looks just like that – a stage. From the grandeur and vision shown so far, we suddenly feel like we are in a theatre watching the stage production. Although they use the set well for what it is, I wonder if a further injection of artistic largesse would not have gone amiss, though the street set with the purpose built elephant that opens and closes the final act is perfect.

The young rebels do a very good job, especially so for young Daniel Huttlestone playing Gavroche, but when it comes to Redmaynne, well, the camera doesn’t exactly love him in this, but my goodness does it try to. I’ve seen the movie three times now, and each time I am determined to try and change my mind about his performance, and each time I get a little further in before I finally can’t take anymore. It is perhaps the occasion or inexperience showing, but he is massively not helped here by Hooper, who favours having the camera close to his cast throughout but with Redmayne he practically has the lens strapped to his face throughout several scenes. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and unless you have a particular hankering for Redmayne flesh you may find yourself being forced to avert your eyes, especially if you are sitting near the front of the auditorium.

This could, and should, have been an absolute powerhouse of a movie. As it is, it’s still very good. Make sure you sit in the sweet spot in the cinema for the best of the sound system (especially important for this film, as is the quality of the system the cinema screen is using {it sometimes varies between screens}) and be aware it’s one of those films where everyone will have a different opinion about performances and casting choices, especially so with Tom Hooper’s style of fairly up-close and personal filming, whereby if you’re not taken with one of the cast you’re about to get a fairly severe eyeful of them for the better part of three hours. It will be a major upset if Anne Hathaway doesn’t win for best supporting actress at the Oscars – victory isn’t quite so assured for Jackman. With powerful music that will bury itself deep into your grey matter, this is, in general, a superbly stylish and heartfelt interpretation that will rekindle fond memories for fans, and deservedly make some new ones along the way.


Quotes

“I’d never been on a film like this where we were doing something that had never been done before, there’s so much expectation, and a hell of a lot of fear, that really bonds people. We had nine weeks of rehearsals so by the first day of shooting we all knew each other really well, and it was the closest I’ve ever had to the feeling of the theatre, and the ensemble you get with the theatre, in a film experience. We were very together.”   Hugh Jackman on shooting ‘Les Misrables’ taken from an interview with ‘Facebook Chat’

The clip below shows how some of the cast warmed up before shooting – look out for the rather unique (and cute) technique from Samantha Barks…

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