Review – Les Misérables
2013, 158 mins, 12A, Dir. Tom Hooper, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway
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).
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.