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 – The Artist

Yesterday I went to see The Artist, a film that has won critical acclaim across the globe. I was so excited after seeing it that I found it very difficult to condense my ideas  into a review – thus the structure is a big chaotic. My only hope is that my opinion is conveyed with clarity. Enjoy, if you can.

Review – The Artist

2011, 100 mins, PG – Dir. Michael Hazanavicius, starring Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman

The Artist

When sound burst onto cinema screens in the late 20s (most famously in 1927’s The Jazz Singer) it was a relief, a sign of innovation and forward movement in the film industry after many years of silent pictures. Prominent actors lost their jobs during this period and were replaced by fresh, new, younger faces, who inhabited the new “talking pictures”. This transition, a landmark of movie history, has been seen in such classics as Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain. But The Artist is incredibly special as the subject matter is explored with the utmost authenticity; the film is black-and-white. And silent.

No doubt it would have been tricky to sell. Releasing a silent picture nearly nine decades after the heyday of such films seems implausible. Audiences have moved on – indeed, the thought of seeing something even in black-and-white is a bit of a stretch for a lot of people. If that’s the way you think about films, then shame on you. Because Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a beautiful piece of work, a beguiling film about fame, success and loss that’s one of the greatest motion pictures of the year.

It begins in 1927, when the dashing matinee idol George Valentin is at his height in Hollywood. He’s got a great picture deal with a major film company, a large house and hundreds of adoring fans. It’s not long before he brushes with Peppy Miller, an aspiring dancer. As “talkies” are introduced, Peppy becomes an incredible star while Valentin is eclipsed by the new format, losing all his money and descending into depression. 

The decision to make the film was certainly a bold (but ultimately rewarding) move. It can be a shock to the system when, at the beginning of the film, the audience of a cinema erupts into applause – and we can’t hear anything. Yes, it really is silent. Technically the film is very impressive with its excellent cinematography and lighting, but the storytelling is the best part. Hazanavicius gives us joy, jealousy, depression, anxiety and anger in a plot that is conveyed mostly through visual action. Not a word is spoken – the actual dialogue shows up on title cards. Does it lose any power with this reduction of voices? Certainly not. Who knew that the sight of a sparsely populated cinema screen could be so heart-wrenchingly affecting?

The choice of casting is impeccable. Jean Dujardin is the Frenchman that plays George Valentin and he does so with authority, emotion and visual brilliance. He gets the makings of a silent film actor down to a tee – his facial expressions, energetic movements and humour are characteristic of Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and other greats. It’s as if it runs in his blood. Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be the wife of Hazanavicius, is equally spellbinding as Peppy, beautiful yet profoundly subtle as the girl who fulfils her dream, but not in its purest form. John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell make appearances but perhaps the best supporting role is that of Jack the dog. Accompanying Valentin throughout the film, the plucky young animal is a pure joy to watch. He deserves his own career.

The score, which covers the vast majority of the film, is rich, the playful piano tunes transitioning to a crescendo of stringed instruments in some of the more heightened scenes. Although most of the music is composed by Ludovic Bource (a frequent collaborator with the director) it is very interesting to hear some of Bernard Herrmann’s haunting Vertigo score during the film’s climax. Some have complained of the use of this music, but it is so perfect for the scene that it is more than forgivable. 

Although The Artist isn’t entirely silent – a nightmarish dream sequence mid-way sees Valentin plagued by sound effects of things hitting his desk – the fact that it has become so popular (and is tipped for Oscars) is immensely encouraging to those who really care about movies. It isn’t on a scale as grand as silent films like Metropolis and Cecil B. Demille’s first version of The Ten Commandments. In fact, there’s nothing lavish or ambitious about the story or production design. What Michel Hazanavicius has done has taken a simple script and shot it without audio; he’s taken us to a different world altogether, where expression wins over dialogue and camerawork is one of the most important elements. The acting is magnificent, the music complex, and the film overall is quite stunning. Will it win Best Picture at the Oscars? Perhaps. But in the 21st century, where the state of the film industry is doubtful, we can rest well in the knowledge that audiences have – for once – been introduced to something very unique.

5 stars out of 5