Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Les Misérables

Academy Award Nominations: 8

·         Best Picture
·         Best Actor (Hugh Jackman)
·         Best Supporting Actress (Anne Hathaway)
·         Best Costume Design (Paco Delgado)
·         Best Makeup & Hairstyling (Lisa Westcott)
·         Best Original Song (Suddenly)
·         Best Production Design
·         Best Sound Mixing

In 1815 France, Jean Valjean is released from slavery after a 19 year sentence by prison officer Javert. He decides a convict's life will get him nowhere, so he breaks parole and starts a new life under a new identity. Eight years later, he is the mayor of a small town and factory owner. Fantine, one of his workers, is fired for sending her wages to her illegitimate daughter being cared for in another town. Valjean has his own problems though, as Javert returns and recognises him when he tries to save Fantine from a life of prostitution. He goes on the run, and decides to save Fantine's daughter, Cosette, on the way. Together they go on the run. Nine years later, with revolution in the air, Cosette is now a young woman, who gathers her fair share of admirers, while Valjean is an old man who refuses to reveal his and hers pasts, but can he summon the strength to take on an angry, brooding Javert one last time...?

Les Misérables is known the world round. Not as the classic Victor Hugo novel which has entertained and depressed generations of readers, but as the worldwide smash-hit musical which has graced the world's stages and entertained millions with its story of hard lives and bleak futures for everyone to laugh at, so it was only a matter of time before someone decided to bring it to the screen, much as countless other musicals have been, both successfully and dreadfully. It's a multi-faceted tale of revolution and slavery and struggle... So who better to bring it to the big screen than the man who gave the world The King's Speech two years ago, made millions upon millions of people smile at a stuttering king and won countless awards for it? So does it work? Has the transition from stage to screen been seemless? Umm... No. No it hasn't.

I'm not a big fan of musicals to begin with, but I have tried to be as objective as possible while reviewing this and to treat this like any other film. Something which was made difficult by the fact this isn't a film. It's a stage performance with bigger sets and bigger stars. I understand that this might be how the musical is, with everybody singing the dialogue instead of speaking it and creating a seemless link between songs... But this is a film. It's fine if that happens on stage, because you get a break half way through. But this is a relentless two and a half hour singsong, with dialogue between the songs being unnecessarily sung and unnecessarily performed instead of just spoken. It's just frustrating. In a film, you need a structure, with coherent dialogue, and this film lacks it entirely by simply making this a film version of the stage show. It also has too much ambiguity, not that that's a bad thing in films, but I didn't know the story going into this and I got very lost within the first half an hour because there was nothing there to explain the storyline properly, just people singing songs about how they feel instead of giving me a coherent plot to enjoy. Sorry for being a film purist, but I like my films to have a coherent plot.

That being said, I did enjoy a handful of the performances in Les Mis. Hugh Jackman is a showman, and he's in his element here, playing the lead Jean Valjean as he struggles through life. In the beginning, he's engaging and sensitive. By the end, he puts in a heartbreaking performance. Really good stuff. Anne Hathaway is also fantastic here as Fantine, you really feel for her as she becomes one of "les misérables" and struggles through life before her untimely demise. It means Hathaway is in the film for little more than half an hour, but she makes a memorable impact. Other than that, Russell Crowe isn't great, but surprisingly better than I assumed he would be. However, when you're singspeaking your words to what seem to be the same tune all the way through the film, it would be hard to mess it up as badly as, say, Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia? Apparently that's a bad thing? Amanda Seyfried starred as older Cosette, which makes it a shame that she has an annoying singing voice, yet she's going to be able to put "starred in the two biggest film musicals of all time" on her IMDB page, very strange. Isabelle Allen is far better as the young Cosette. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are mildly entertaining as the evil Thénardiers as well.

The film itself looks great. The sets are lavish and extravagant, the costumes are detailed and authentic, and the soundtrack is tried and tested on an audience of millions so the actors know which beats to hit and where the greatest amount of emotion will be evoked. The camera work is interesting as well, a lot of handheld camera and Dutch tilts, but I actually liked it and personally, I would have liked to have seen Tom Hooper nominated for best director for this, as I think there's more stylistic flourishes and expression on display here than there was in The King's Speech. The cinematography is brave too, getting extremely up close and personal with the French Revolution. It's clear that they put all of the thought into the look of the film rather than the substance, they've literally transplanted the stage script and score onto the big screen so you're not getting anything new in that regard, other than the Hollywood A-listers singing them. That aspect just seems lazy to me, it's as if they've forgotten they had a fantastic source novel to work from, add dialogue from, add element of the story from to help with the transition, instead of solely relying on the stage musical.

Overall, it seems as if Les Mis presents a lost opportunity. They could have written a fantastic script with the music from the stage show worked into a well-scripted dialogue-centric script. Instead, they picked up the play and threw it onto the big screen and it just doesn't work. It cheats the audience too, as they don't get anything new from the film that they wouldn't have gotten from the stage show. This was an opportunity to present Les Mis to a whole new audience, but instead they aimed squarely at the audience they already have and will have, given its successes on Broadway and the West End. The main cast are good, the ensemble know their lines well from having been on stage with it, and the mise-en-scene was as good as any Hollywood production. Before going into this, I'd never seen Les Misérables on stage. After sitting through this, I feel like I don't need to, nor would I ever want to.

Rating: **

Les Misérables was released on 11th January 2013 and is still being shown in cinemas.