(First published 26th January 2013)
As one of the very few people on this planet who had not yet encountered the wonder ofLes Miserables (there must be five of us at most), I regarded myself in a very fortunate, unique and untarnished position. I was one of the chosen few who had not yet been sucked into the hype. Obviously, I’d heard of the musical – those around me would give no other choice – but it was still a rather unfamiliar territory. So, there I sat with eyes wide and expectations high, revelling in the clean slate that was my Les Miserables experience.
For those of you like I, who have somehow avoided the phenomenon that is Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical adaptation, Les Miserables follows the journey of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-convict trying to turn his life around. The film begins when he is still a prisoner – ‘I stole a loaf of bread’, he tells us tunefully, adding quickly that it was for his sister’s child so that we do not completely hate him. However, when he is released, he breaks parole and thus instigates a Tom and Jerry chase with surly police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Parallel to this kerfuffle is down-and-out prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway). When poor Fantine becomes unable to provide for her child (reasons related to that inconvenient nuisance we call death), Valjean bounds forward in suave Jackman fashion to fulfil the role of surrogate patriarch. In a later narrative, we are also shown the plight of young student revolutionaries against the backdrop of 19th century France, one of whom becomes infatuated with the aforementioned child, now a beautiful and busty Amanda Seyfried. It is through the central character of Valjean that all of these individual stories are bound, creating a wonderfully powerful illustration of the strength and endurance of mankind.
The cast overall make up a good ensemble. Amanda Seyfried, despite her customarily shrill melodies and feeble nature, portrays Cosette well – if anything, the irritating features that define her perhaps made her perfect for the role, as Cosette is of similar annoyance. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen also provide some light entertainment as the Thénardiers, although I can’t help but feel that their impact is hugely impaired by the fact that we had seen them play these character types so many times before, which compromises a lot of their charm. However, the young revolutionaries, led by the Eddie Redmayne as Marius, all give impressive performances and help stir audiences with their impassioned zeal. Hathaway, too, gives a stunning show, although I must niggle that her sparkling white Hollywood teeth – glinting through her whimpers – slightly spoil the overall imagine of despair.
Crowe as Javert provoked a lot of confusion for me. As I remarked quizzically upon his strange, bunged-up singing, a friend quickly hushed me and said, “You don’t realise, his voice reflects the character. Javert is the law, this is just who Javert is.” Now, aside from feeling pretty patronised – it would not take a genius to understand that Javert is one of those introverted, staunchly obstinate, law-abiding types that crop up quite often in cinema – it still does not deny that I found his voice unpleasant on the old ears. I can’t help but feel that this constipated, uncomfortable voice wasn’t solely Crowe’s attempt at characterisation. Constipation aside, Crowe does fit the part well, and ultimately I will never quarrel with his overall acting abilities.
The live-action singing is a feat. It is the best thing about the film, for it somehow bridges the gap between cinema and theatre and it helps lessen the overall glossiness that I normally hate about musicals. It creates a layer of realism that musicals often shatter, and I therefore cannot praise it more highly – not least for the technical implications on both actor and filmmaker.
Upon asking my friends what they thought, yet more Les Miserables mania ensued, for everyone had a different opinion on every element of the film. Some hated the live action singing aspect, whereas some like myself loved it. Most seemed to embrace Anne Hathaway as Fantine, but there were a select few who did not. Let me instead wade through the hordes of biased veterans to report from my esteemed position that Les Miserables is very good. Of course I can compare it to neither the stage show nor the novel, but by the end of the 160 minutes I felt that all of the hype was justified, which was perhaps the biggest problem concerning me. In short, the musical cynic has spoken, and she enjoyed it very much.