With the burden of expectation higher than any other screen adaptation of a stage musical, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) has attempted to marry what until now have been two very different faces of Les Miserables. One, the gritty drama that unfurls from the pages of Victor Hugo’s epic 19th novel and the other, the soaring score of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubli’s musical adaptation. There have been screened versions of Les Miserables, the story, before. Most notably in the context of this film is the 1998 film starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as Jean Valjean and Javet respectively. Filmed fifteen years earlier, it is in my opinion a beautifully shot film that captures that epic sprawl across the years of Valjean’s journey to redemption. The wintery landscapes and the poverty stricken Paris of the 19th Century are beautifully rendered and the woefully outnumbered students are decimated with visceral musket and canon fire. The performances are rock solid and not a single note is sung.
Hooper, with Cameron Macintosh along as producer has made a film that visually looks little different but make no mistake, this is the musical version. Where Hooper and Macintosh has strayed off the path and become cinematic pioneers is the unprecedented step of recording the actors singing their parts live with an ear piece linked to nothing more than a rehearsal pianist just off camera. The orchestration is put in afterwards to the rhythm set by the performer. This radical move was to allow the performers the space to give their lines the full emotional weight without worrying about being always on the beat. A bold move.
So, let’s get the ‘who’ out of the way before we return to the ‘what’.
Hugh Jackman as Jean Valean: emotionally convincing at every turn if a little out of his depth vocally.
Russell Crowe as Javet: Nothing can prepare you for how bad he is. Every time he opens his mouth it’s like a decrepit tug boat fog horn. His steely introspective interpretation falls flat and there is nothing good you can say about him in this whatsoever.
Anne Hathaway as Fonteine: Nothing short of devastating. Finally I Dreamed A Dream has been snatched back and reclaimed from Susan Boyle in the most heartbreaking and dramatic of fashion.
Sasha Baron- Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenadiers: I’m going to paraphrase a friend of mine performing on Broadway (not in Les Mis) here: “Sacha Baron Cohen needs to go away. Period. Helena Bonham Carter needs to do something other than big hair and goggly eyes”. On paper they should have been great in these roles. They really weren’t.
Samantha Barks as Eponine: proves to perfection why she had the role on the West End, in the 25th Anniversary concert and why she deserved to reprise the role here in the film.
Eddie Redmayne as Marius: In sharp contrast to my screening companion, I really liked him. I thought he sung well and was a very competent student idealist with both anger and love in his heart.
Amanda Seyfried as Cosette: Let’s face it, it’s a wimpy nothing role but she hit the notes and looked pretty.
Aaron Tveit as Enjolras: Decent performance as the enigmatic leader of the students if a little on the wimpy side. Only Slightly though.
So, with the celebs and their characters out of the way, it’s time to say did this brave feat actually work? On balance, I’m going to have to go with no.
Cinematically it looks great. The opening sequence with the hundreds of convicts hauling a war ravaged tall ship into a dry dock as they sing and get pounded with waves is spectacular in its vision but a good example of why the film ultimately fails. It’s the music. Or to be more precise, the lack of music. Les Miserables is widely touted as the ‘the musical for people who don’t like musicals’. For those of us who love this show while disliking most other forms of the genre is because the music is big, muscular and just downright epic. Look Down has huge bass notes, robust horns and bass voices chanting in a testosterone fuelled chorus of sweaty convicts. It’s an impressive opening. But here, and sadly in much of the rest of the film, where the music should be loud and bold, it’s toned right down and what should have been a deafening chorus of hundreds of miserable convicts metaphorically and almost literally “standing in their graves” ends up being quite underwhelming musically and vocally.
The same can be said of Master of the House. The jovial syncopation of the beat in this ale house drinking song is where the humour and even warmth of the ghastly Thenadiers comes from. On screen it’s barely there as the actors “act” their lines vaguely to something approximating the song. Which brings me nicely to the unique singy-acty technique pioneered in this film. Hathaway’s use of it in I Dreamed a Dream is the perfect example of it as a brilliant device. She shudders, she pauses, she sobs and sings her guts out. It is nothing short of heart wrenching and shows just how clever a technique the live recording can be. That being said, it doesn’t always work. The aforementioned Master of the House is one of many examples of it. It feels clunky when Jackman does it when he decides to cast off Valjean and open a new chapter in his life, though it does get there by the end of the number. Barks uses the technique sparingly and to good effect in On My Own.
The other thing to mention when talking about the singy-acty thing is that I’m sure most orchestra conductors would take umbrage with the notion that by singing the song, the actors somehow aren’t allowed to ‘act’ and paint a complete emotional picture. There’s a reason the conductor stands on their box so that the orchestra can see them and they can see the actors. They’re not human metronomes. They conduct around the actor’s performance and let them hold a word longer and speed some up for urgency. Also, it’s not a play, it’s a musical and each song has been carefully designed and crafted to tell a story within a story that has in built rhythms and cadences that unfurl an emotional ebb and flow.
So, does it look good? It mostly looks great but some of the grand sweeping vistas of Paris look like CGI. Are the performances good? For the most part yes but it’s a real mixed bag. If you love the musical should you see it? Probably, but you’ll most likely come way thinking that simply seeing it on stage is better. Will it reinvigorate the franchise? Again, probably. It’s been playing for a long time now and this may pick up sales slightly. The Australia tour this year will no doubt benefit from interest generated by the movie, if for no other reason than seeing it on stage can’t be topped.
For a show that mostly relies on one major set piece and an atmospheric lighting design, Les Miserables really is all about the music. So it’s baffling then that the might of the orchestra is so sorely missing from most of the mix in this film. Yes, 19th century France is authentically realised in the set and costume design but it was in the 1998 version too. It seems that the two faces of Les Miserables may in fact be mutually exclusive and that if you want Vajean scaling the walls of Paris, grimy cobblestones, scary woods, impressive battle scenes and actors giving well rounded performances to complex characters then go for the Neeson/ Rush Film. If you want the driving percussion, boisterous chord progressions and lets face it, I Dreamed A Dream, then go see the show.