Review – Les Misérables

Review – Les Misérables 

2013, 158 mins, 12A, Dir. Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway

Les Misérables
Les Misérables

Any questions as to whether or not I’m a fan of musicals are always met with a resounding ‘No.’ Singin’ in the Rain is one of my favourite films and I love the glorious tomfoolery of Bugsy Malone, but I’m sceptical of anything else due to the fact that I just find them a little bit generic. Despite this, I’m not going to be mean about Les Misérables simply for the fact that I was actually impressed by it. Having not seen the stage show, and after slightly wincing at Anne Hathaway’s saccharine Oscar acceptance speech, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. But the film succeeds, a definitive crowd pleaser strengthened by its performances and innovative recording style.

Though rooted in Victor Hugo’s lengthy 1862 novel, Les Misérables is more of a film adaptation of the popular stage musical, which has been running in the West End for nearly thirty years. It takes place over a seventeen-year period in early-nineteenth century France as we follow Jean Valjean, a former prisoner who has violated parole and is hunted by the ruthless policeman Javert. Most people know the story – it eventually builds up to the failed 1832 Paris rebellion which saw the deaths of nearly a thousand anti-monarchist students. But it’s not really about politics. We’re faced with the emotion of love, death, sacrifice and redemption as the characters all interact for better or for worse. And perhaps the best thing about the film is its cast – a remarkable selection of actors, most of whom can actually sing. Anne Hathaway is pretty powerful as Fantine, although the one-take ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is perhaps too overt an invitation for an Oscar, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are both a delight to watch as they plunder the shabby habitués of their inn. The real star, however, is Hugh Jackman, who gives a totally unrivalled and supremely operatic powerhouse of a performance, vastly overshadowing whoever is opposite him, including Russell Crowe (although, in this case, that’s not a terribly difficult thing to do). 

Hugh Jackman in the French court - one of his best moments
Hugh Jackman in the French court – one of his best moments

It’s also an impressive technical achievement. Director Tom Hooper’s decision to record all singing on set – a slightly mad idea given that pretty much everyone sings, all the time, even the dialogue – genuinely adds something to the film. A few of the songs are given a rawness that is perhaps absent from other, more clean-cut musicals, while everything in general is so flawlessly mixed you wonder if the filmmakers told the truth about what they were doing (the soundtrack is, incidentally, very good). Tom Hooper’s frequent use of close-ups encourages an intimacy with the performers, drawing us in to their struggles, although there are a few wider, more cinematic moments that are equally as impressive.

The biggest flaw of the film is its length. As we approach the final few scenes the whole thing becomes gradually less consequential – there’s love, there’s death, there’s rescue, there’s love again, and everything perks up for the final song, but the ending has been so long coming that it slightly loses its meaning. What it’s in need of, ideally, is an interval, as in the stage play: a break from its scale and its emotion to prevent it from becoming bombastic. But nevertheless there are some stunning numbers, and the collective singing in ‘One Day More’, with the characters belting out lyrics in different locations, linked by frequent cuts, is a brilliant high point.

Some will be put off by its high-flown sensibility and the simple fact that it is a musical. But it would be unfair to dismiss Les Misérables because there is simply so much about it that is right as opposed to wrong. Strengthened by its performances and its cinematic technique, it is a brutal, warts-and-all assault on the senses that demands to be seen in the cinema.

7/10

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Review – In Darkness

Review – In Darkness

2011, 145 mins, 15, Dir. Agnieszka Holland, starring Robert Wieckiewicz, Benno Fürmann and Agnieszka Grochowska

In Darkness

Agnieszka Holland’s In Darkness was Poland’s candidate for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2012 and although it didn’t win it is pretty good. It tells the true story of Leopold Soha, a public service worker in the Nazi-occupied town of Lvov who manages to hide a small number of Jews in the large underground sewers, of which he has an intricate knowledge. Initially thinking only for his own benefit, Soha began to bond with the Jews and vouch further for their protection. The title is extremely telling; the audience does indeed spend a lot of time in dimly-lit areas of the sewer (perhaps half the film) and at times it can be very difficult to watch, not just because of its subject matter but because of its technique. We constantly jump from above ground, where Soha wards off those who could ruin his secret, to below, where the Jews struggle to keep their humanity in enclosed rooms infested with rats. While this disorientating style is enough to put off some cinemagoers, In Darkness is something that should be seen at least once. It focuses on the actions of one individual in the context of the Holocaust, one man’s personal decision to help those in need, and is astonishingly visceral; the director takes us without hesitation into the grime of the film’s hiding place, the sweat and heavy breath of our protagonists, the pitter-patter of vermin on the sewer floor. In some areas, it is intensely uncomfortable. And yet a necessary watch – an absorbing, psychologically profound piece of work which works remarkably as a smaller-scale production (in comparison to similar films such as Schindler’s List). The amount of fear and uncertainty conjured up by the superb actors and claustrophobic camera angles makes this an experience.  Although you can begin to feel the time towards the end of the 2 1/2 hours, it is very tense, and quite a brilliant portrait of an ‘unsung war hero’, an alternative tale from the horrors of the Holocaust, with a terrific performance from Robert Wieckiewicz.

4 stars out of 5

Review – 21 Jump Street

Time for a nice short review! Haven’t done one of those in a while…

Review – 21 Jump Street

2012, 109 mins, 15, Dir. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum and Ice Cube.

21 Jump Street

Very recently, comedy actor Jonah Hill was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the biographical sport drama Moneyball. If this honour spurred him on to  try and achieve new levels of acting credibility, then the release of his newest film 21 Jump Street is exceedingly ill-timed. It’s a remake of the 1980s TV series of the same name, which revolved around several young-looking undercover police officers investigating crimes in high schools,  and which actually addressed some very serious issues of the time (alcoholism, AIDS, child abuse, homophobia). Co-written by Hill himself and with Channing Tatum also starring, this actually leans more towards the crass comedy of Superbad than the crime drama of the original series. In parts, it does work; Ice Cube gives a spirited turn as Captain Dickson and the cameo scene is initially brilliant. Yet the film is lacking something. Despite two (admittedly) good performances from Hill and Tatum, the script is weak, with numerous inconsistencies, too much extraneous profanity and underwritten characters; most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough. Which is a shame, as the film has some great ideas (it actually marginally exceeded my expectations) but eventually goes so far overboard that it ends up heavily discomforting the audience. Those who see it will know instantly what I’m talking about. Not awful, but it certainly could have been better.

'Right, which one directed Terminator: Salvation?'

2 stars out of 5