26 January 2013

Review: Les Misérables

(Dir: Tom Hooper, 2012)

As I pointed out last year in my review of Rock of Ages (read here), I don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to musicals. The whole concept ends up being somewhat lost on me as I struggle to engage with singing as the narrative driving force. Maybe this stems from my finding lyrics the least important element of any non instrumental music I listen too? Nonetheless I enjoyed Rock of Ages a lot more than expected, precisely because of the actual song choices, which left me wondering how I’d fare with Les Misérables, a more traditional musical I suppose. I very rarely watch musicals, to the point where I had no prior knowledge of the Les Misérables story, nor I think of the songs. 

Lets say this from the outset then - Les Misérables is hard going. It’s an overwrought and melodramatic story that seems to revel in the way the delivery of the story enhances these emotions. Now there is some interesting themes going on in here – the path of the righteous man / the obsessive nature of another man / the French resistance making a stand. This all has potential yet the only one that feels more fully explored is the former, with the burden on Hugh Jackman’s shoulders as Jean Valjean. His acting here is solid, his singing a little more hit and miss. There were times he was convincing in song, other points not so, but regardless of his voice his delivery and emotion was always spot on, making him enjoyable to watch. His journey is an interesting one. Yet he’s not the highlight.

The most noteworthy member of the cast is Anne Hathway as Fantine. This is definitely a supporting role as she’s not on the screen for that long, but every single second she is she’s fantastic. Her voice is beautiful (I never realised) and the emotion in her delivery alongside her acting elevates this; her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dreamed’ is scintillating and far and away the best few minutes of Les Misérables. That it comes so early overshadows the rest of the film. All the other cast notables get their solo moments too but my concentration greatly wavered in each as none were anything special - the songs or the performances. Russell Crowe seemed well cast to play a character such as Javert and like Jackman his vocal performance was hit and miss too, yet not as bad as reported elsewhere. Eddie Redmayne’s Marius had the most consistent male voice but his baritone felt a little jarring in context of some scenes. The women seemed to have better voices overall and Samantha Barks stood out strongly as Épinone.

Tom Hooper did a good job staging Les Misérables for film (obviously that opinion comes from not knowing how it’s done on stage), however the way it was shot frequently didn’t work. It’s a film that visually feels too close – nearly all singing scenes are shot with a close up of the actor involved and as that comprises most of the film it was sweet relief to get the occasional wide shot. Sometimes it worked – a very early scene with Jackman in a church comes to mind. Perhaps this was for us to properly see the actors performance as they were singing for real, but it felt like overkill. It also really felt like a long film with the final hour dragging, being another reason I quickly lost interest in some of the solo performances. I guess theatrical audiences can endure because of the interval. 

Les Misérables didn’t leave me swayed by musicals, especially when the story is so overdone at times and could've seriously benefited from some brevity. Aside from Hathaway’s superb turn I didn’t get the emotion that made so many people in the cinema sound like they were in tears. The actors are all decent, quality of their singing regardless, and thankfully there was comic relief from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter to lighten the load. The production felt weighty enough for the story too. All in all it’s a reasonably good film that’s not exactly the easiest or most enjoyable of watches. Unless of course you love musicals, in which case my opinion will be irrelevant to you!

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