I freely admit than when I sat down to watch Les Miserables on a Saturday evening, the room packed with people on this, its opening weekend in the UK, I was expecting to be disappointed. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Tom Hooper’s last film, The King’s Speech, I couldn’t help but feel it was quite overrated, and certainly not worthy of the 2010 Oscar for Best Film. Even more than that, I tend to be quite cynical about this kind of big-screen musical adapted from a West End show, not least after the embarrassing flop that was 2004’s The Phantom of the Opera.
I had not seen the West End show before I watched this film. I did not know what to expect, save for the A-list cast belting out the songs with gusto. Of course, Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine – and in particular her rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ – is already legend, and I suspect that many members of the audience sitting down in the auditorium to see this for the first time had already heard it many times. I have always been sceptical about Hugo’s vast epic being converted into a musical, and therefore resisted seeing it. Such are the dangers of bias.
Coming out of the cinema, I can’t actually imagine the film being made any differently. The music, far from doing an injustice to Hugo, actually makes his story digestible, and perhaps stays truer to the atmosphere of the novel. Can you imagine just how dreary and depressing this film would be without the music? Through what other medium might an audience make such a smooth transition from sobbing their heart out one moment, and holding their sides with laughter the next, without the film selling out on tone and atmosphere?
The music, as I’m sure I hardly need to say, is exceptional. The performances also are first-class; the cynic inside me wanted to smile at the prospect of seeing Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe belting out musical numbers, but I stand corrected. Both are breathtakingly good, and I can’t stress enough just how important Hooper’s decision was to have the actors singing live on-set to an orchestra, rather than having them mime to a pre-recorded soundtrack. The authenticity and life it gives to the performances is invaluable to the film, and it more than compensates for the odd bum note here and there. All the actors are excellent, with brilliant support from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as thieving innkeepers, and two of the most remarkable child actors I’ve seen in a long time – Daniel Huttlestone (as Gavroche) and Isabelle Allen (as the young Cosette).
The cinematography is a swoon – the compositions and mise-en-scene astounding, and the authenticity of the sets remarkable. The story, being so well known, I shall not relate here – if you aren’t familiar with it, you are at no disadvantage. Go and see it knowing nothing – I believe the experience will be all the more rewarding for that.
I cannot deny the power of this film. It is an abject piece of manipulation; it is sentimental, over-the-top and deliriously melodramatic. But then, in many ways, so is its source material; fair enough, Hugo allows much nuance and detail in his characterisation and description of the period, but delicacy and subtlety are not two of the novel’s strongest virtues. That isn’t to the detriment of the novel – it is a great piece of literature, just as this is a mind-blowing piece of cinema. At the end of the day, we go to the cinema in order to be manipulated, because whatever else a film should do, it should make us feel. The quality of the film simply depends on how well it manipulates us, and the care taken in making sure the film connects with its audience.
It is not ashamed of being a full-blooded blockbuster; instead, it revels in the fact and thus exploits the genre for all it is worth. The result is breath-taking – an emotional whirlwind bursting with colour and vitality, a consummately crafted and vastly ambitious piece of cinema. I left the auditorium with my bias and preconceptions not having been gently assuaged, but hammered and pounded out of all recognition. I doubt there was a single audience member not wiping away tears and humming ‘Can you hear the people sing?’ as they walked out, after the rapturous round of applause that greeted the end of this awe-inspiring crowd-pleaser. Only the snobbish could deny the sheer entertainment value of this cinematic spectacle, and I for one am a massive convert. Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables is a truly great film, and is set to take its place among the best-loved musicals of all time. I cannot wait to see it again. And best of luck to Anne Hathaway for the Oscars come February!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (January ’13)
I’m going to be honest- musicals aren’t really my thing. The songs may be well composed and written, well sung and acted and I can see why people like them, but generally not my cup of tea. The last modern musical I saw was Sweeney Todd; a deliciously dark mould with reliable acting and a cast of great voices . However, Les Miserables is in a different league altogether.
Against the backdrop of the French Revolution, prisoner 24601 (Jackman) escapes jail during the June revolts. Hathaway is the mother of a young child, Cosette; who, following on from her death, is taken into the care of two evil innkeepers (Cohen and Carter) briefly before being adopted by the prisoner; who then brings her up. Years later, the revolution has reached breaking point and a triangle of love develops between Cosette, Marius (a young rebel) and Eponine, a girl of lower social standing.
I don’t know about you, but I’d probably laugh aloud if you told me Russell Crowe was in a musical. The truth is, like all the cast; he has a beautiful voice and never strikes a wrong note. Even more impressive is that Hooper recorded the vocals live with no dubbing. Visually the film is stunning; the frequent close ups of main characters only serve to draw the audience in further. There wasn’t a moment where I was disinterested and Hathaway’s rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is truly remarkable.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, Paddy Johnson (January ’13)