It’s the phenomenon that has swept the nation, it’s the longest-running musical in history, it’s the UK’s number 1 film. Of course, I speak of Les Miserables, as last night I finally got round to seeing the movie version of the story and I have to say I was quietly impressed.
To add a bit of background to this claim: I have , surprisingly perhaps, always been a massive fan of Les Mis. I say surprisingly, because I absolutely detest musicals. There’s something so toe-curlingly naff about them. I’ve been to Chicago, I’ve seen Cats, I’ve watched Kiss Me Kate, I’ve even survived the stage version of Mama Mia, even if it did involve months of post-traumatic therapy to fully do so.
Les Mis is an anomaly. It is in a totally different class to all those other examples. For a start, the songs are, in the main, phenomenal. The others are disposable bubblegum pop. Rogers and Hammerstein are the Stock, Aitkin and Waterman of the stage in my mind, while Gilbert & Sullivan are sort of twee and camp. A bit like, say, Mika.
Conversely, Les Mis is Pink Floyd. It contains moments of genuine musical beauty. Songs like Stars, On My Own and the much celebrated I Dreamed A Dream are genuinely fantastic solo songs. Then you have the ensemble numbers such as One Day More, Look Down and At The End Of The Day. It is a great and, dare I say it, enormously emotional story told through the medium of outstanding music.
Bottom line is that I liked it so much that I have seen and loved it three times. But enough of a eulogy, that was the play, what of the film?
My guess is that, from director Tom Hooper’s point of view, my situation as such an ardent fan of the stage version made me both the target audience but also potentially one of the harshest critics. As any director who makes a bad superhero film inevitably discovers, you fuck with someone’s beloved franchise at your own peril.
To look at the broader aspects of the film, such as location and casting, they had done a decent job. The sets were pretty spot-on, while on the whole the actors looked the part. From Russell Crowe’s rough, officious Inspector Javert to Eddie Redmayne’s weedy, starry-eyed romantic, Marius, all of the actors were well picked for the characters they portrayed. This would, however be overlooking one hugely important aspect of this film as a musical – the singing.
I had, prior to going, tried to limit my exposure to critical reception for the film, as it can inevitably cloud your judgement of any art form. Many of my favourite albums have been critically panned, for example. I had however heard that Russell Crowe had taken a bit of stick in the press, which in hindsight I thought might have been slightly unfair. On the whole he sings his songs relatively well and crucially with an air of realism. I thought the worst offenders in the singing department were Hugh Jackman, who acted quite beautifully but was let down by a severe lack of depth in his voice, and Eddie Redmayne, who perpetually looked like if he tried any harder to hit a note, his head might explode.
But enough of the negatives and a huge positive came in the performance of Anne Hathaway in the role of the doomed Fantine. Hathaway has sold her soul to Satan. Or something like that. There really is no other explanation for how sharply she has turned her career round. What began with Princess Diaries and Bride Wars, to name but a few abominations, has somehow morphed into first her film-saving performance in Dark Knight Rises, and now this. The girl can certainly act, but crikey she can sing too, adding genuine lump-in-throat passion to her I Dreamed A Dream.
Additional kudos came in the form of Samantha Barks as Eponine, who cheated a bit by actually having played the role on stage beforehand, while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provided light relief from the atrocities as the comically deviant Thenardiers (one of the few roles in theatre that I would love to play). The ensemble numbers are, in the most, performed with aplomb too.
The power of some of the songs maybe doesn’t come across as much as on stage, although it is worth noting that when you see the play, they are almost entirely performed as a concert, projected directly to the audience. In the medium of film, with its close-up shots, there is much more acting to be done. This explains to some extent why “top actors who could sing a bit” were seemingly cast ahead of singers who want to act. And fair play. As much as I don’t particularly rate the likes of Redmayne, the other route would have involved someone like Justin Timberlake playing Marius, and frankly no-one wants to see that.
So, all-in-all a job well done by Tom Hooper. If you are still to experience the global phenomenon, I’d thoroughly recommend it. The film is good, the play is superb. Take your pick. But I can offer one bit of advice: If you want to soundtrack on your iPod, for god’s sake get the stage version.
By Harry Harland