Film Review: The Muddle of Les Misérables

By Charlotte Rowland

Do you hear the people sing? Everywhere, they're singing the praises of the new Les Misérables film; of it's Hollywood leads, director Tom Hooper, the 'masterstroke' of recording the soundtrack live on set, it's 9 BAFTA nominations.

Witnessing this cacophony, I feel a little like Eponine – confused and alone. Am I the only cinema-goer this weekend that left with mixed emotions? Not as a musical non-believer. I know every lyric and note by heart. Nor, I don't think, as a Les Miz purist. Honestly, I can cope with the odd reordering of songs, or the ruthless cutting of lyrics... Okay, the latter was a bit painful, but adaptation-anxiety aside, I'm left conflicted over this film. Some scenes were excellent. It ended on the wave of tragedy and elation that earns this musical's extraordinary popularity. Then there was the other hour and a half.

Before I launch into a mournful monologue of disappointment to rival Eponine's, recognition is due for the cinematography. Visually, it is trademark Tom Hooper (the director of The King's Speech fame): grand and dramatic. The camera pans epic mountainous landscapes and city skylines, filled one moment with the bold tones of the French tricolour, a surreal tempestuous sky the next. It is stunning, and completely theatrical.

Some will revolt at the sparks flying from the hooves of Javert's horse as he pursues his nemesis, or at the butterfly flickering by Cosette's (Amanda Seyfried) angelic face as she sings through ornate gates to her lover. For me, it works. After all, you have to embrace a fantasy France. How else would you justify the cockney kid beloved of fans, and the Scottish accent of an extra?

Les Mis: Russell Crowe

The problem for me, for the first hour at least, is that I have ears as well as eyes. It's not that any of the Hollywood greats can't hold a tune, they just choose not to in the name of performance. Hugh Jackman as Valjean is the worst offender, electing to convey emotion via (increasingly annoying) elongated pauses. Or breathlessly cutting every word short. In fact, often the emotion is so great he has to trail off completely into normal speech.

Meanwhile to make way for this profound, BAFTA-nominated subtlety, the orchestral backing is strangely muted, stopping and starting to keep pace with Jackman's erratic timing. It completely overlooks that the many powerful emotions of Les Misérables are captured in the music itself. Pouring the pain of the wretched of 19th century society into these notes is as essential as communicating through the physical performance or lyrics.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast didn't get this artistic memo either, and even ensemble pieces like 'At The End Of The Day', are half-sung, half-spoken. Without the punctuation of some volume and drama, the soundtrack becomes monotonously lacklustre, bizarrely incongruous against a theatrical visual that could have been imagined while on acid. By the time poor Anne Hathaway's panting soliloquy arrived, an effort that in isolation would have been admirable, it seemed so unoriginal I'd happily have sauntered off for a tea-break. Even the directorial hand seemed lazy, disconnectedly flicking between each famous song as if to check them off the list.

Les Mis: Eddie and Eponine


But suddenly, mercifully, something changes. Salvation comes at the exact moment Eddie Redmayne (Marius) appears on screen, in the company of Samantha Barks (Eponine) and a band of young revolutionaries. Finally the goosebumps arrive. Was it Redmayne's enchanting freckled face that converted me? Perhaps. Maybe it's that Hooper has a more concentrated, linear story to direct from this point? Above all, I think it was the presence of a more attractive talent – vocal talent!

This lot have it in abundance, and together they recovered all the tone and energy the film had been lacking. Enjolras – always the unsung hero of the Les Misérables cast – was played brilliantly by relative new-comer Aaron Tveit. As were the student revolutionaries of which he was leader. Among them were the likes of Fra Fee and Killian Donnelly – the Marius' of the West End. Like Samantha Barks, they proved the perfection possible when strong, professional singing and brilliant acting are applied to this raw method of recording.

Les Mis

For the much-discussed 'innovation' of this film - that the cast sang live, rather than syncing to pre-recorded vocals - is artistic excuse for the earlier weak soundtrack. Just in time, Eddie Redmayne demonstrates how this method can lend understated power, with technical accuracy, and without all the panting. Forget Hathaway, his 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' captured the loss of young idealism and life in heart-wrenching style.

Long after the rest of the cinema were sniffling and snorting loudly into tissues, the barricade I had gradually erected against this film melted. The emotionally-charged closing scene at Valjean's deathbed was, visually and audibly, everything you would want it to be. If only the casting had been less commercial, the director more in control of his Oscar-hungry stars, I might have enjoyed a full two and half hours of this perfection.

As the titles rolled I too clapped exuberantly. When you have original material like Les Miz, carrying every theme from love, religion, death to social justice, it's not hard to sell any adaptation. A rousing rendition of 'Do You Hear the People Sing' and much is forgiven. Even so, I couldn't join other audience members in a standing ovation.

Mon, 14 Jan 2013 14:15 (GMT+00)
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