All misérable, all the time!

Several hours ago, I saw the movie adaptation of Les Misérables. I am still waiting for sensation to return to my buttocks.

That makes it sound like it’s a terrible movie, I know, and it isn’t, although it isn’t perfect either. It is, however, very very long. OK, it’s about twenty minutes shorter than the stage version – but the stage version has an intermission. After an hour and a half, you can get up, use the bathroom, walk around, stretch your legs, or do ANYTHING other than watch people sob in tune about how downtrodden they are then get killed. In the film, after an hour and a half, there’s still well over an hour to go before you can move, and that break is missed. If you’re going to get full value out of spending pushing three hours watching people suffer and die to music, some respite, however brief, helps. A lot.

It’s not as if I didn’t know about the length going in. It’s a long time since I first saw the musical on stage, and I’ve seen it several times (in fact, three times in London, twice in Manchester, twice in Toronto, and once each in Paris, Prague and New York). I’ve seen the Royal Albert Hall and O2 Arena concert versions on television, I own a number of cast recordings from stage productions (although I only really ever play the ones in French), I’ve read the big glossy hardback book that was sold a couple of decades ago as a tie-in to the stage production. I am, in short, as familiar with the material, probably, as anyone who doesn’t identify as a ‘fan’ of the show could possibly be, and while I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a ‘fan’, and can point out all kinds of shortcomings in the material, I enjoyed it on stage very much. I enjoyed it on film as well – but not quite as much as I usually do on stage. Tom Hooper’s film, I’m afraid, makes two things abundantly clear: one, that Herbert Kretzmer’s English-language lyrics for the show are dismally predictable, and two, that Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s thrilling, exceptional direction (still, I think, the best work either has done on the musical stage) was more responsible than you might think for the show’s impact in the theatre.

Here, unfortunately, we don’t have Trevor Nunn and John Caird. We have Tom Hooper, a large budget, brilliant art direction, sets, props, costumes and all the rest of it, and a lot of quick-cutting any time anyone sings counterpoint. ‘One Day More’ is a stirring piece of music, but on stage, when it’s sung well, it’s spine-tingling – and the film, I’m afraid, makes it crystal clear that that’s at least partly because of the stage picture, and the fact that, as the number progresses on stage, all of the various participants are right there in front of you, sharing the same space. You don’t just hear their counterpoint, you see it as well. Hooper can’t replicate that in the film, so he just keeps cutting between the different members of his cast, and the result, unfortunately, just doesn’t have the same impact. Because the sequence, as beautifully produced and designed as it is, is less thrilling than it was in the stage production, you pay more attention to the lyrics, and in this material that’s not a good thing (there is a reason I usually listen to the French recordings rather than the English ones – both French texts are much, much better); they tend towards the banal, and you’re usually two or three steps ahead of the rhymes. The material is what it is, and the stage show has been so extraordinarily successful that major changes were never going to be made – but film is a more literal medium than theatre, and this material’s flaws are far more obvious on screen than I’ve ever found them on stage.

Hooper’s best move, in fact, is his much-discussed decision to have his actors sing live on set, rather than pre-recording their musical material in the studio then miming their songs when the cameras roll. It’s a very definite stylistic choice, and it mostly works to the advantage of a principal cast who do not all by any means sing at the level that has usually been required of their counterparts in the stage show. The singing is often startlingly conversational, and all the better for that; these actors are all simply playing their scenes in song, rather than facing front and Delivering A Big Number. This is an enormous film, but it’s often, paradoxically, almost uncomfortably intimate; solo numbers are delivered as soliloquies, often in extreme close-up, and the singing, even from the strongest singers, is often somewhat ragged around the edges, because everyone involved is working within an aesthetic that privileges acting over purity of musical tone. I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it works, and mostly works well.

Having said that, even given this very definite aesthetic choice, not all of the singing is unimpeachable. Hugh Jackman delivers an absolutely superb, thoroughly compelling acting performance as Jean Valjean, but his singing voice isn’t always the best fit for Valjean’s music (he’d never have been cast in the role in a stage production). He makes most of it work for him, but he’s defeated, I’m afraid, by the formidably challenging ‘Bring Him Home’, which sits in the least comfortable part of his voice, and which should have been transposed down for him. Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette is radiantly pretty and absolutely charming, but the music really demands a proper soprano, and she isn’t, and when she moves into her head voice her vocals are thin to the point of wispiness.

And then there’s Russell Crowe’s Javert. I know Crowe can act because I’ve seen him do it before, but it seems sometimes he simply chooses not to. Obviously, this is one of those times. He acts like he’s constipated, sings like he needs a good night’s sleep and a big dose of Sudafed, and in his hands Javert’s two big solos are by far the worst things in the film. It’s as if his adenoids showed up every morning and the rest of him stayed home.

Fortunately, Crowe’s is the only completely duff performance. Eddie Redmayne brings real fire (and a very strong voice) to Marius – not easy, since Marius in the musical is frankly a bit of a drip – and his fellow insurrectionists, led by Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras, are terrific. Samantha Barks is possibly even better as Eponine. It’s no surprise that she sings beautifully – she’s already played the role on stage – but she’s the only person who, in negotiating the film’s very particular aesthetic choices, manages to turn in a performance that’s completely satisfying musically as well as dramatically. Sacha Baron Cohen (an actor I usually very strongly dislike) and Helena Bonham Carter are a very welcome surprise as the Thénardiers – they don’t, thank God, fall into the trap of playing the comedy too broadly, they’re properly threatening when they need to be, and their ‘Master of the House’ is a sly, insinuating triumph.

Which leaves Anne Hathaway, whose work in the film has probably generated more column inches (and awards buzz) than everyone else put together. It’s a tiny role – maybe twenty minutes of screen time – but she grabs it with both hands and doesn’t let go, pulling a full-on Charlize as she charts the destitute Fantine’s descent into prostitution, and her eventual death from – well, something nasty and probably sexually-transmitted. She’s painfully thin, we see her getting all her hair cut off, and she has her teeth pulled (only the back ones, though, because she’s Anne! Hathaway! so we can’t make her look too ugly), and she sobs and gulps her way through ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – the show’s most overplayed song – in a single, mesmerising take. It’s an absolutely compelling performance – although, in common with many of her colleagues, her rendition of her music is probably not the one you’ll want to take home and listen to on your iPod – and it’s undeniably moving, at least up to a point, but it’s also absolutely calculated, and blatant Oscar-bait. It’s the film’s showiest supporting turn, but Barks and Bonham Carter do more subtle, more interesting work, and other actresses, in stage productions of the show, have generated more emotional fireworks through this song via less overtly demonstrative performances.

William Nicholson’s screenplay shifts some scenes and musical numbers around and makes a few judicious trims, and does a generally effective job of translating the material into a form that makes sense on screen. There’s a new song – ‘Suddenly’ for Valjean, sung as he carries Cosette away from the Thénardiers’ inn, and it’s pleasant enough but not terribly memorable, although it’s one of Jackman’s better musical moments. Hooper does an efficient but not always inspired job of the crowd scenes, and does not spare the blood towards the end of the lengthy barricade sequence. And the crowd scenes, actually, provide one of the film’s greatest pleasures: this is through-sung pop opera, and the bit parts are luxury-cast with a who’s who of British musical theatre over the past 20 years. From Les Mis itself, we have Colm Wilkinson (original Valjean) as the Bishop of Digne and Frances Ruffelle (original Eponine) as a whore, and they’re both wonderful; beyond them, we have one-or-two-line turns from Daniel Evans, Hannah Waddingham, Marilyn Cutts, Bertie Carvel, Adrian Scarborough, Linzi Hateley and God knows how many others. The supporting/bit-part performances – and there are a lot of them – are consistently spot-on.

The film as a whole, though, is perhaps slightly less than the sum of its parts. It’s certainly enjoyable, and parts of it are tremendous, and the closing tableau of the dead and living mounting the barricade for a final rousing chorus of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” is as effective on film as it was in the theatre – but not everything preceding it is as effective on film as it was in the theatre, although the creative personnel involved here have all made consistently intelligent choices in adapting the stage production for a medium that makes a very different set of demands. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music works well enough in the cinema, and stands up to the more conversational, less declamatory approach taken by the film’s cast. Yes, it’s all a bit relentless, and yes, a couple of individual performances aside, it has roughly the subtlety of a steamroller, but it works. It isn’t perfect, and the film’s soundtrack certainly won’t replace any of your cast recordings, but this is probably as good a film as could have been made from this material, and it’s head and shoulders above several recent-ish big-screen adaptations of hit stage shows. Yes, Hairspray and Phantom and Rent, I mean you. All of you. It also seems to work for people who aren’t ‘fans’ – at least, I saw it with a friend who has never seen the stage show, and he enjoyed it, albeit with some caveats.

Just take a cushion, or spring for the premium seats. Trust me, your buttocks will thank you.

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2 thoughts on “All misérable, all the time!

  1. I suppose this is one of those times I should be grateful I’m too ill to attend. Even so, it wasn’t high on my must-see list.

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