Sunday, 20 January 2013

May Contain Spoilers! ~ Some Thoughts on Les Miserables

Disclaimer: I should start this by saying that Les Miserable was my favourite musical of all time from the age of 19 when someone lent me the CD of the Original London Cast Recording (and I was going through some Eponine-type unrequited love thing, incidentally.) Given that this was 20 years ago, and I've also seen the stage show in the West End since then, I suspect my loyalty to this original CD, cheesy synths and all, biases me a little against the film. I think everybody should see the film, its impact is powerful, its music amazing, and it contains inspired performances. But obviously I have a few gripes. So what follows is not technically a review, but some musings.

Some thoughts on Les Miserables: The Movie

I should start by staying I am SO glad I went to see Les Miserables the weekend it came out!

Especially since we are now pretty much snowed in for the weekend. I would have been agonising that I was missing something I shouldn't go without missing, particularly for a Les Mis fan. As it was, I could have waited. As a piece of filmmaking, I'm sure its exemplary, and as a work in the Les Mis oeuvre, it is challenging, exhausting, yet fulfilling and uplifting. (And hugely emotional.) Yet, it doesn't convey my ideal of a Les Miserables movie (which is a good job, since it's Tom Hooper's vision.) There are aspects where the original stage version is improved upon ~ and areas where I feel it's been let down. And I know this doesn't lessen from the contribution the film makes overall, but I just had to put these down somewhere because they are jumping around my head.

Firstly, Gavroche. To me the cutting down of young people in their prime, and the wretched existence they occupy in poverty, is one of the central themes of the film. Yes, Gavroche maintains an important role (in fact there's a scene with him which is one of the most poignant and disturbing in the film) but also, his part is drastically cut. Both his youthful optimism about what 'Little People' can do, and the symbolism contained in this idea that something small can effect great change (even if it is not witnessed in a person's lifetime) is profound, and I would have loved more screen and singing time for Gavroche. It would also, I feel, have punctuated a heavy and challenging film with more comic relief.

Thankfully, we had the Thenardiers to provide a comedic breath of fresh air, as they do in the stage play. For the film, however, their roles seem to be especially hammed up (FirstSister loved the 'Cosette/Courgette' wordplay and nearly fell off her seat laughing) which I found a little startling, although I enjoyed the scenes. I read another 'tarnished gem' review of Les Mis which felt that the Thenardier scenes let the film down, which I think misses the point ~ poverty and strife and uncertain times can lead anyone to a dissolute life, which is enacted with relish in the film, but ultimately it is clear that a life of repentance, goodness, mercy, grace and refusal to judge others for their behaviour, as epitomised by Jean Valjean, wins out in the end, in Les Miserables, in life.

Please, please, don't get me started on The Ending. I feel my heartstrings were duplicitously pulled. A deliberate layer of saccharine sentiment spread over the top of a fine cake, unnecessarily. Due to the conventions of a stage show, if all the characters (some deceased) reappear and start singing, it makes sense. There seemed to be some nudge to the afterlife going on in the film, however, together with a huge, unsubtle "these people will live on for their sacrifices and its going to make you cry for hours" thing. (Not sure else it could have ended, mind you!)

The Sex....luckily 1stSister is both informed enough and naive enough to be unaffected by the sexual scenes in the film, even though she isn't yet 12, the minimum recommended age for the film. I wasn't happy, though. It's true that the medium of film can render things more intimately than the stage can, and so offers the ideal opportunity for close-up scenes of intimacy. But really, couldn't these have been reserved for Marius and Cosette? Yes, the prostitution aspect conveyed the desperation of the times and how redemption is not easily won, but I was shocked that Fantine's descent into this world was portrayed so graphically. I admit the sex was more implied than explicit, but I still felt it was more than necessary.

The Singing. OK, I can just about forgive and forget about that cod-Scottish accent Hugh Jackman seemed to be sporting early on. I've been a fan of him in musical theatre since I saw the 1999 film of Oklahoma!, and I think he makes an excellent Valjean, and sings amazingly. Yet, yet...this whole innovative thing of 'live' singing is raw and meaningful, but I think I would have preferred it recorded. Less operatic and stagey than the show, yes, but less messy. (This is probably just me, as I prefer to hear studio CDs rather than live music, despite being a huge alternative/punk/indie fan.) I enjoyed the dramatic interpretation through music by Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but I thought Samantha Barks in particular was exceptional, possibly because her performance was the most polished and accomplished yet still conveying rawness and feeling. Again, possibly this is personal preference, coupled with the fact I've followed Samantha since her televised auditions for Oliver! the musical. And, as with most movie musicals, there's one actor who can sing in tune, yes, but nevertheless doesn't sound quite right ~ nasal and flat. This in itself I could overlook, but there's a reason movie musicals need to be populated with musical theatre actors, rather than merely actors ~ because they express so much through their performance. I think Russell Crowe was so focused on trying to sing he forgot to act, or so focused on trying to act he forgot how to sing well. He just couldn't do both at the same time. (There's another blog piece on Les Mis here which largely echoes my sentiments, but is more of a balanced review!)

Javert was the only role I felt was miscast, however. (I did think Anne Hathaway seemed a little young for the role, although, technically, she isn't.) Apart from the fact that I agonised throughout the entire movie that I'd seen Eddie Redmayne in a period drama before, but couldn't work out where*, I really enjoyed his performance of Marius. It was subtle and emotive; it had a journey to it, from naive lad to someone who understood the bigger picture. Had it not been for the complementary performance of Enjolras mind you (the actor who played him being more traditionally more Marius-like) I would have been hankering after Michael Ball, who, with or without synths, who was such a definitive Marius to me.

Good bits = The Opening! Fantastic! Grand scale and scenic - and I also enjoyed the cinematography over Paris. (But, I felt there was a lot of time devoted to close ups, and missed the stage view aspect.)

In closing, the Ensemble Numbers were what really made it for me. Although I moaned about close ups, the ability to sweep over the entire cast and zoom in on those who are singing the relevant part, when the music breaks into multiple parts in the ensemble numbers, was very impressive. I can forget all my gripes about individual performances, because the ensemble numbers were so very well done. In fact I think this sums up my feeling about the film overall - yes, it's flawed, but that can be so easily overlooked due to the amazing parts of it, and the fact that it coheres so well as a whole. My choir are going to see it one night next week, and if I weren't asleep by 8pm each night (= 29 weeks pregnant), I'd certainly go again. As it was, I found it long enough and exhausting enough to watch at a lunchtime, and very glad I didn't partake of any of the wine for sale in the auditorium!

Finally ~ everyone should go and see it, and form their own opinion ;-)

(*Tess of the D'Urbevilles, BBC TV, 2008, also featuring the divine Gemma Arterton.)


  1. I too am a practically lifelong Les Mis fan so I understand where you're coming from. I agree about Gavroche. His death is usually the moment I start to cry in the play, but even though the students were in deep mourning, I felt I didn't know Gavroche as well as they did. Mind, I was in tears with Anne Hathaway's I Dreamed a Dream so that was tons earlier than usual. I think Russell was miscast due to his range. His voice was lovely once it got down into the bass range, but Javert's a baritone, so ...

    I too was wondering where I'd seen Eddie Redmayne before and may I confess he may have actually outdone Michael Ball in that scene?

  2. Good to hear from you, Leanne. I do have an image of Marius/Eddie Redmayne sitting down to sing Empty Chairs & Empty Tables on my mind, it's true, that remains an iconic part of the film for me. I realised yesterday that I am now more than ready to see the film again........!