Déjà vu all over again

GHD OV

 

Good news/bad news. Danny Rubin and Tim Minchin‘s new musical adaptation of Rubin and Harold Ramis‘s Groundhog Day deserves every single one of the five-star reviews it received last week. It’s a dazzling, inventive, richly rewarding reinvention of the source material, it’s brilliantly staged by Matthew Warchus, and Andy Karl is giving one of those once-in-a-lifetime star-is-born performances in the Bill Murray role.

And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself sat next to the people I was sat next to on Saturday afternoon – apparently repeat visitors – you may find yourself wishing you’d smuggled in an electric cattle prod and a big roll of duct tape.

The show itself bucks a recent trend: it’s almost a given these days that a musical adaptation of a recent-ish film will smooth out the film’s rough edges (assuming it had any), and fillet out everything interesting in the screenplay in order to shoehorn in a selection of bland songs, performed by suitably bland actors who don’t challenge the memory of their screen counterparts. Indeed, Groundhog Day’s director, Matthew Warchus, has form here: his production of Ghost was as vacuous a piece of theatre as has been produced on either side of the Atlantic at any point in the last two or three decades, and the leading lady he imported from New York – the un-fabulous Caissie Levy – gave a performance which redefined the word “inert”.

Warchus, though, also collaborated with composer Tim Minchin on the RSC‘s wildly successful musical adaptation of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda. That show was good; this one, even at this early stage, is better. Minchin and Rubin haven’t simply inserted songs into the original screenplay. They’ve taken the material apart and put it back together again, and found a slightly different, arguably more rewarding spin on Rubin’s tale of Phil Connors, a grouchy, narcissistic weatherman who finds himself endlessly repeating the same day over and over again. The film is more or less The Bill Murray Show, albeit with a couple of memorable supporting cameos, most notably from Stephen Tobolowsky as an irritating insurance salesman. Without sacrificing any of the source material’s comedy, the musical offers a somewhat bigger picture.  More weight is given to some of the supporting characters, starting with Rita, Phil’s producer – the Andie MacDowell role in the film – and prominent (and very effective) musical numbers are given to that irritating insurance salesman, and to Nancy, the pneumatic blonde Phil repeatedly tries to seduce. There’s nothing superflous; without sacrificing any of the comedy, and without ever offering a bald statement of their theme, Rubin and Minchin deliver a quiet, surprisingly perceptive meditation on the various ways people find themselves trapped in cycles they did not necessarily create themselves. Far more so than the film, the payoff at the end is substantial.

All of which makes the show sound Far More Serious than the film, which it certainly isn’t. Rubin, Minchin, and Warchus have a great time mining the ridiculous kitsch surrounding the Groundhog Day festivities (in which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, an oversized rodent is asked each year to predict whether the winter will be long or short) – one number even puts a man in a groundhog suit centre-stage playing drums. Minchin’s offbeat sense of humour is a perfect fit for this material, and his songs are often very funny indeed. Phil’s opening put-down of small-town USA is bracingly mean (in the first line, on waking up in a chintzy B&B, he sings of his “ugly bed/ugly curtains/pointless erection”, and his disdain snowballs from there). Later in the show, there’s a big laugh when Phil, some time into his time loop, sings of having slept with 90% of Punxsutawney’s women “and one boy, when I was bored”. Midway through the first act, an extended production number gleefully rips various alternative/new-age therapies to shreds (reiki comes in for a particularly harsh kicking, and this might be the first musical to include a choreographed enema). The second-act number depicting Phil’s various suicide attempts is pitch-black and absolutely dazzling – not least because of an intricately clever staging which has Phil “miraculously” popping up in bed in the B&B seconds after apparently offing himself on the other side of the stage. Minchin’s pop-flavoured music is melodic, quirky, and always entertaining; this is a fiercely intelligent show, but it’s also always fun, even as it ventures into surprisingly deep emotional territory towards the end of the second act. And it’s greatly to Minchin and Rubin’s credit that they never, even at the show’s finale, open the doors to the material’s enormous potential for trite moralising. That finale – a song called “Seeing You”, which Minchin premiered in concert a while ago – may be the show’s most soaring melody, but it’s also, in terms of the lyrics, a masterpiece of delicacy and restraint.

It’s also given a masterful performance by American actor Andy Karl, who offers a brilliant, (hopefully) star-making turn as Phil Connors. Bill Murray’s performance in the film is (deservedly) one of the best-loved of his career, but Karl proves to be at least his equal. He’s far more conventionally good-looking than Murray, and while he lacks Murray’s weariness, in the first half of the show he presents a character who is significantly more unpleasant than Phil was in Murray’s performance. That’s partly because he simply isn’t Bill Murray: by the time Murray made Groundhog Day, he’d developed a familiar screen persona and sustained it through several movies, including this one. Murray played the role with a slight but always-visible twinkle – however unpleasant the character became, you were always aware you were watching Bill Murray. Karl doesn’t bring an established persona to the table; accordingly, his Phil is an unpleasant, self-absorbed asshole, at least to begin with, and there’s little sugar-coating. For most of the first act the character is not especially likeable, and he almost never leaves the stage – but Karl has a terrific singing voice, superb timing, and enormous charisma, and he makes Phil’s worst excesses tremendously entertaining. All of which, of course, makes his eventual redemption all the more moving, although Minchin and Rubin resist (thank God) the temptation (which must have been there) to make the ending into a manipulative tearjerker. Karl simply doesn’t put a foot wrong. How good is he? If the show turns out to be a hit on Broadway, it could do for him what the National Theatre’s Oklahoma! did for Hugh Jackman.

Opposite him, as Rita, Carlyss Peer has the advantage of recreating a role originally portrayed by Andie MacDowell. MacDowell’s one-note, wooden performance was the film’s single misfire (has she ever made a film in which she didn’t give a one-note, wooden performance? If she has, I missed it); the musical gives Peer a bit more to work with than the screenplay did, and she’s lovely. Peer’s Rita is the show’s normative figure: the townspeople are all more or less drawn as caricatures, at least initially, so Rita serves as the audience’s way in. She’s bright, funny, charming, and a very strong singer (this is apparently her musical debut); unlike MacDowell, she creates a nuanced, three-dimensional character, and she more than holds her own next to Karl’s firing-on-all-cylinders star turn.

As for the rest – Warchus redeems himself for the horror that was Ghost, delivering a fast-paced, carefully detailed staging packed with warmly funny ensemble performances. There’s witty choreography by Peter Darling and Ellen Kane, an evocatively skewed set from Rob Howell (including an eye-poppingly hideous interior for Phil’s B&B bedroom), and a whole host of clever visual grace notes (one favourite, early in the show: as Phil’s attempt to leave Punxsutawney on the first Groundhog Day is thwarted by a snowstorm, we see an actor in a groundhog suit dump a shovelful of fake snow on a toy van crossing the front of the stage). Unlike Ghost, this isn’t a vast technological spectacle; instead, it’s an intricately-choreographed comedy in which the thrills – and there are several – come via Paul Kieve’s sleight-of-hand theatrical illusions, Minchin’s superb score, and Andy Karl’s sensational star turn. I’m more or less running out of superlatives here: this is a tryout production, the show is (eventually) heading to Broadway, and it’s already in tremendously good shape. I loved it.

I did not, unfortunately, particularly love the audience – or at least, I didn’t love the section of it seated immediately to my right. I saw the show at last Saturday’s matinee (August 20th), from the rear of the upper circle (factor in the cost of a train ticket from where I live to London, and theatre these days is getting too expensive to sit anywhere below the “cheap seats” – which, themselves, are not as cheap as they used to be). I was in seat F6 (terrific view for the money); to my right, in seats F7-11, was a group of five people (younger than me, but not that young) who arrived, carrying drinks, right before the house lights went down. They’d obviously seen the show a few times before – bearing in mind it’s only been playing six weeks or so – because not only did they clap/snap their fingers in time with the music, they sang along – accurately – with several of the numbers in the first half. When they weren’t singing, they were talking, and not in a whisper. Subtle attempts – glares, shushes – to get them to shut up were ignored. I eventually told the woman sitting to my right to shut up, and she did… for about five minutes, then she started up again. One woman a couple of seats down from me kept putting her feet up on the back of the seat in front, each time kicking the gentleman sitting there between the shoulder-blades (because of the steep rake) and forcing him to hunch forward in his seat. The best was saved for a woman in the row in front, the companion of the gentleman who kept getting kicked: halfway through the first half, when she’d understandably had enough of these obnoxious pricks, she turned around and told the person sitting behind her to shut up, and got the remnants of someone’s drink thrown over her.

At the start of the interval, I went and found an usher, and asked to speak to a house manager (so did the woman who had the drink thrown over her, and her partner). I explained what had happened, and that I wasn’t prepared to put up with it in the second half; the house manager very kindly found the three of us alternative seats (no mean feat, the performance was almost sold out), and the second half of the show proceeded without interruption, but with the perpetrators still in their seats, and still presumably disrupting the show for everybody who didn’t complain.

That, I’m afraid, isn’t good enough, although I’m certainly grateful for having been given an alternative seat in the second act. In this country, throwing a drink over someone is technically a chargeable offence, not that anybody was considering going down that road. These louts – whose parents must be so, so proud – disrupted the performance for everyone around them, one of them did something that in the strictest legal terms constitutes common assault, and there didn’t appear to be any consequences for them. Where is the disincentive for behaving disruptively the next time they see the show?

Put simply, once the disruptive behaviour crosses the line – or rather, gulf – between a breach of audience etiquette and an actual offence, however minor, the perpetrators should not be allowed back for the second act. The house management’s job is to ensure the whole audience – not just people who take the trouble to complain – get as ideal an experience of a given performance as possible. Dealing with, and if necessary removing, disruptive patrons is not a pleasant part of the job – I know, I’ve done it, and I didn’t take any pleasure in it – but it is part of the job, and allowing disruptive patrons to return for the second act, in the end, shows enormous disrespect to both the audience and the cast.

If I sound angry, there’s a good reason. Think of this from the point of view of a consumer: in most cases, if I buy something and it turns out to be defective, I have some recourse. If I buy an appliance and it turns out to be faulty, it will be replaced. Even if it’s damaged in transit through no fault of the supplier, I retain certain rights, and I’ll get a replacement or a refund. In this case, I purchased an experience, in the form of admission to a performance. The experience, thanks to the gaggle of selfish dickheads sitting to my right, turned out to be defective – and that’s it. It’s gone. Even though I got reseated for the second half, the experience is damaged. The day, furthermore, cost a great deal more than just the theatre ticket, once you add in train fares, lunch and all the rest of it – and having shelled out all that money and travelled a round-trip of roughly 400 miles, I ended up with less than I paid for. That’s galling.

It’s also troubling to consider what the behaviour of these individuals suggests about the nature of fandom. As I said, they sang along to Minchin’s songs accurately. There’s no cast album, and as far as I know only one song from the show has been performed in public out of context. They’d clearly seen it several times, and they clearly identified as super-fans – and they apparently felt it perfectly appropriate to express their fandom in ways that diminished the experience for everyone sitting around them. Andy Karl has a terrific voice; the lady sitting two seats to my right last Saturday afternoon does not, although she certainly knows how to project. Of course it’s a given that these people are selfish and stupid and absolutely incapable of showing consideration for anything beyond themselves, but somewhere along the way, they appear to have got the idea that being the WORLD’S BIGGEST FAN grants them an absolute licence to do as they like, and screw everyone else, because nothing has happened to disabuse them of it – which actually is probably the most compelling reason why they should not have been allowed back into the auditorium for the second act. By letting them back into the theatre even after three complaints about them, the management are essentially granting them permission to be as unpleasant as they like. Given that even the cheapest seat costs at least three or four times the price of a cinema ticket, I find that unacceptable.

So, yes, Groundhog Day. Go and see it. Go and see it several times. It really is as good as the reviews suggest – but please keep quiet while the house lights are down, keep your feet off the seats in front, and keep your drinks to yourself. And if you must sing along, wait until the album comes out and do it at home, OK?

 

 

 

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Bend it like Beckham… or, how the hell are you going to make a musical out of THAT?

 

Bend it

Answer: surprisingly well, as it turns out – even if, like me, you couldn’t be less interested in football.

  • The film is extremely charming; this adaptation – like the film, driven by Gurinder Chadha, who wrote and directed the film and co-writes and directs the musical – stays relatively close to the source material, but finds a way to translate it into something theatrical, rather than simply dumping songs into the screenplay and putting it on a stage.
  • It’s much more a dance show than you might expect. Aletta Collins’s choreography finds a convincing theatrical language for the football sequences, and (in the second act) masterfully intertwines the football with a Sikh wedding dance. The movement is spectacular and often thrilling, although there is very little traditional musical theatre choreography.
  • Howard Goodall’s music is probably his best theatre score since ‘The Hired Man’. Along with his co-orchestrator, Kuljit Bhamra, he does a very clever job of blending English and Indian musical influences into a coherent theatrical language. The score is a beguiling mixture of Britain and Bhangra, and there’s even a 500-year-old traditional Punjabi wedding song thrown in halfway through the second act. It works, and it’s not quite like anything else you’ve heard in a musical.
  • Having said that, the ensemble sequences tend to be better than the solo numbers, a couple of which are, frankly, a bit wet.
  • The opening number – ‘UB2’, the postal area in which most of the show is set – is a real earworm. You’ll be humming it for days after you hear it.
  • Charles Hart’s conversational lyrics generally work well, although occasionally the appropriate language for these characters eludes him (an 18-year-old in 2001 simply would not talk about remembering something for “all my days”). ‘People Like Us’, in which a British-Indian father describes the casual racism he’s encountered throughout his life in the UK, is very moving indeed.
  • As Jess, the 18-year-old Sikh would-be footballer, Natalie Dew is absolutely charming, and she makes you forget Parminda Nagra’s performance in the film.
  • As Jess’s marriage-obsessed sister Pinky (the Archie Panjabi role in the film), Preeya Kalidas is simply brilliant. She’s the best singer in the cast, her comic timing is perfect, and she manages to find the warmth in a role that could very easily turn into a rather sour caricature.
  • Lovely work, too, from Lauren Samuels as Jules, Jess’s friend/rival on the football team, from Sophie-Louise Dann as Jules’s mother Paula (whose quietly sad Act Two song ‘There She Goes’ is the best of the score’s solo numbers), and from Jamal Andréas as Jess’s friend Tony.
  • You can see the ending coming a mile away, even more so than you could in the film, and it doesn’t matter at all.
  • Don’t come expecting a big spectacle along the lines of a ‘Miss Saigon’ or a ‘Phantom’, though. The set is effective, but relatively simple (I think the last time I saw periaktoids was in a regrettable mid-90s UK tour of ‘A Chorus Line’ in which the late Adam Faith was miscast as Zach). Chadha’s staging is admirably fluid, but it isn’t flashy.
  • While it isn’t flashy, though, it is great fun, and you might even have a lump in your throat by the final scene.
  • The souvenir stand in the theatre is asking £16 for a copy of the (terrific) cast recording. That’s just taking the piss.

Overall? It’s worth seeing. Yes, it could probably stand to lose about ten minutes, and yes, the second act is better than the first, but Chadha and her collaborators have taken a film that looked like a very unlikely prospect for adaptation to the musical stage and turned it into an absolutely irresistible stage show. It works beautifully, it’s very entertaining indeed, and it’s not quite like any other musical you’ll have seen.

If you want to see it, though, I wouldn’t hang around. It has a large cast, it’s in a small theatre, and big discounts are available, which means it isn’t selling especially well. It deserves to be a bigger hit, but it isn’t going to be around forever.

Flash! Ah-ah, she’ll save every one of us!

As a hook, it’s pretty much irresistible. Watch Meryl Streep, who apparently can’t pour herself a cup of coffee without taking on a new accent and getting an Oscar nomination for it, strap on a guitar and unleash her inner rock goddess. That, right there, is about half a dozen reasons to shell out for a cinema ticket. Who cares if the film itself is any good?

Well… it’s better than you might think, and not as good as it could be. Streep is phenomenal – and, sure, worth the cost of the ticket on her own – and the film that surrounds her is sharply witty and never less than entertaining, but Diablo Cody’s screenplay treats the plot’s darker emotional undercurrents with rather too light a touch, and the feelgood ending, while not unmotivated, arrives a little too quickly.

Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo – or rather, a former housewife called Linda from Indianapolis who abandoned her husband and young children and moved to Los Angeles in the hope of becoming a rock star. At the start of the film, she’s fronting a covers band in a dive bar in the San Fernando Valley and working a day-job as a checkout clerk in a high-end (but low-paying) supermarket; the plot kicks into gear when she’s called back home by her ex-husband (Kevin Kline) to help her now-grown-up daughter (Mamie Gummer), who has had a kind of breakdown following the end of her marriage.

Did I mention that this is a comedy?

The early encounters between Ricki and her estranged adult children, in fact, are among the best things in the film. Gummer, in particular, is a whirlwind of rage and resentment, and yet she somehow manages the very difficult trick of making her character’s edgy bitterness towards her mother funny. She and Streep – her real-life mother – play off each other beautifully, and their gradually-thawing relationship is surprisingly touching. Sebastian Stan and Nick Westrate as Ricki’s sons have too little to do, but do it very well; the restaurant dinner-from-Hell at which Ricki sees her adult sons for the first time in years is bracingly sharp-edged and, again, a perfectly-judged comedy of (bad) manners.

The trouble is, there’s more to this story than we’re ever allowed to see. At the centre of the film is a societal double-standard: a man would not necessarily be condemned for turning his back on his children in order to focus on his career, but for a woman it’s considered one of the ultimate sins. Cody’s screenplay even has Ricki make that point explicitly in one scene; we don’t get enough sense, though, of the force that drove Linda to walk away from her family and reinvent herself as Ricki, particularly given that it’s clear throughout that she does love her children, even if she doesn’t always know how to deal with them. Character details are raised and then dropped; we learn that Ricki is a conservative Republican who voted for George W. Bush twice, and the film (admirably) doesn’t condemn or mock her for it, but Cody doesn’t really explore the interesting contrast between Ricki’s conservative politics and her free-spirit lifestyle. Kline is perfectly charming as Ricki’s ex-husband, but there’s little sense of how two characters so unlike each other that they could have come from different planets could ever believably have been married to each other.

And then there’s Audra McDonald as Ricki’s ex-husband’s second wife. She’s billed fourth, behind Streep, Kline, and Gummer, she has a handful of Emmy nominations and about four hundred and fifty Tony Awards, and she basically has two scenes. She’s great, and she brings a very entertaining passive-aggressive acidity to her showdown with Streep, but she’s one of the best actors of her generation and she has two scenes. It’s like buying a Maserati and then only ever driving it around a supermarket car-park. The role, as written, perhaps doesn’t need to be any bigger, and possibly needs someone with a certain gravitas in order for the character’s big scene with Streep to work, but still. Two scenes. McDonald is a luminous presence on screen – the camera loves her – and she’s someone who really should be playing meatier roles rather than bit-parts.

What saves the film – and, you won’t be surprised to learn, what saves the day at the plot’s final turn – is the music. I said earlier that the main reason to buy a ticket was to see Streep pick up a guitar and rock out, and that’s where the film unquestionably delivers. Is there nothing she can’t do? She is absolutely believable as a woman who lives for her music, she plays a mean guitar, and she fronts a band which features Rick Springfield, Rick Rosas, and Bernie Worrell, and gets away with it. Director Jonathan Demme shoots the band’s performances with loving care; they’re genuinely exciting, right down to Streep’s appropriately rough-around-the-edges vocals. Even though you know fifteen minutes into the film that Ricki, in the end, is going to heal her broken relationships with her children via the transformative power of her music blah blah blah, it’s a pity there are a couple of chapters that seem to be missing from Cody’s screenplay before that finale rolls around. Fortunately, the performance scenes are enjoyable enough that they paper over the screenplay’s cracks, at least while you’re watching them.

Overall? It’s great fun, but not a great film. It’s worth seeing for Streep and Gummer, Streep’s scene with McDonald, and (above all) the band, and you’ll walk out of the cinema with a smile on your face, but there’s a fair amount in the screenplay that doesn’t quite bear close scrutiny.

And brace yourselves, because somebody somewhere must be thinking about trying remake it as a jukebox musical for the stage. I wonder – does Patti LuPone play the guitar?

The light is getting dimmer (I wish I saw a glimmer)…

Or, some reflections on having sat through Into the Woods at the cinema this afternoon:

* The coffee cups at the AMC cinema in Manchester are absolute crap. The lids don’t fit, the cups themselves are unbelievably flimsy, and you end up – at least, if you’re unlucky, as I seem to have been this afternoon – wearing as much of the coffee as you manage to drink.

* You might suspect it isn’t a good sign when the headline item in a discussion of a particular film is the coffee cups used by the cinema’s concession stand. You would be correct.

* Having said that, it isn’t necessarily a terrible film. It might even, one key piece of casting aside, be the best possible film that could be made from this material in the absence of the kind of top-down rewrite that is never going to happen when the stage author is also responsible for the screenplay.

* But having said that, some things just don’t work as well in the cinema as they do onstage (and, undoubtedly, vice versa), and I’m afraid that’s the case here.

* The show – we all know the plot, don’t we? – is a mashup of several existing tales and a new one written to join them together. On a stage, it is perfectly possible to have three things happening simultaneously in different areas of the stage, as long as you have a director who knows how to direct the audience’s focus to where it needs to be on each beat of the scene. A camera, on the other hand, can usually only photograph one thing at once (yes, I know there are exceptions, there are always exceptions), so jumping between different storylines that shared the same space in the stage musical requires a lot of cross-cutting.

* This means the movie gets off to a rather jerky start. In the theatre, the twelve-minute opening sequence, with the beginnings of the show’s several fairytale storylines taking place in the same physical space, is a tour-de-force. Here, it’s a lumpy mess of cuts between different actors and different bits of songs, and it never coalesces into a coherent whole.

* The rest of the film is better, but it still, for far too much of the time, seems to progress in fits and starts. Character songs like Red Riding Hood’s “I Know Things Now” and Jack’s “Giants in the Sky”, which work well enough onstage, bring the film’s action to a grinding halt, despite (in both cases) winning performances from the young actors in those roles.

* That’s doubly true for the Baker and his wife’s big first-half duet, “It Takes Two”. It’s absolutely charming, it’s beautifully performed, and we’ve got the point thirty seconds into the song, which then goes on for another two minutes. That’s true in a number of places in the film, which feels overlong, whereas the stage show, in a good production, doesn’t.

* With one exception, whatever problems the film might have are certainly not the fault of the cast. The performances – with one exception – are absolutely terrific. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the Baker and his wife have good-enough singing voices, great chemistry, and charm and comic timing to spare, Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella is suitably earnest and prettily sung, and Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen ham it up beautifully as a pair of preening Princes. There’s lovely work in even the tiniest roles – Tracey Ullman is delightfully sharp as Jack’s Mother, Christine Baranski is a fabulously bitchy evil stepmother, and it’s fun spotting Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie, and Simon Russell Beale in two-minute walk-on parts.

* And then there’s Meryl Streep, who clearly had a ball playing the Witch. She’s scary, funny, absolutely compelling, and she sings the hell out of her songs (something which – cough – eluded the lady who created the role in the original Broadway production). Whatever is wrong with the film as a whole, Ms. Streep is worth the cost of a ticket (so, to be fair, are Mr. Corden and Ms. Blunt).

* And that leaves Johnny Depp, and I wish they had. I’m old – well, over 40 – and I can remember, just about, when Mr. Depp was capable of playing something other than Mr. Depp. It was a long time ago. Here, unfortunately, he doesn’t even play himself particularly well; given that pretty much all the other actors are working at the top of their game, it’s all the more obvious that he’s phoning it in. Fortunately, he’s on screen for less than ten minutes, although it feels longer.

* The design, art direction, and set decoration, on the other hand, are all impressive; whatever the film’s longueurs, there’s always something to look at. And as the story progresses past happily-ever-after into the second act’s thorny mess of consequences and moral equivalency, the film’s look, to the design team’s very great credit, becomes satisfyingly (and appropriately) dark. The plot’s climax doesn’t really work on any level unless it feels as if the remaining characters (by the last twenty minutes, some have died or disappeared) are literally facing the end of the world; here, it possibly isn’t quite as dark as it needs to be (bearing in mind that I saw the original London production, which threw commercial considerations to the wind and staged the second act with a dark brilliance that I’ve yet to see any other production quite match – on the evidence of the DVD, the slick, shallow, too-glossy original Broadway production certainly didn’t), but it’s closer than anyone had any right to expect in a Disney film of this material.

* But just like his stage script, James Lapine’s screenplay still falls apart in the last twenty minutes, although he’s cut this section of the piece far more ruthlessly than he has elsewhere. It’s obvious – not least because Lapine has one character or another state it baldly approximately every ninety seconds throughout the second half – that they were aiming to use fairytales to demonstrate that you must be careful what you wish for, and that actions have consequences (Sondheim is not entirely free from blame here either – those are the subjects of the two dreariest songs in his mostly charmingly effervescent score, and they come back-to-back at the very end of the film). In the event, what we actually get is a story about how it’s OK to commit a murder in order to evade the consequences of a lesser crime as long as you sing a cloyingly sanctimonious ballad about community responsibility while you lure your victim into her trap. That’s been a fault in almost every stage production I’ve seen; the original London production just about got away with it because the director, Richard Jones, staged the show’s climax so that it genuinely felt as if the central characters were facing the apocalypse. That production, though, was dark to the point of being frightening, and quite emphatically Not For Children, and this is a Disney film. It’s to the great credit of everyone involved that they get as close as they do to making it as dark and scary as it needs to be for the ending to work, and Frances de la Tour’s Giantess is a triumph of both acting and special effects – but they don’t quite go far enough, and a miss, in this case, is as good as a mile.

* This is an issue that is possibly magnified in Britain: Red Riding Hood, in the film, is cast younger than she was in the stage show. In the film, she’s a pre-adolescent, and over the past couple of years we’ve been bombarded with a series of truly horrifying news stories about the sexual abuse of young girls by older men, beginning with but not limited to the Jimmy Savile saga and the grooming ring in Rochdale. In that context, the way Sondheim and Lapine present the Red Riding Hood storyline with a clear subtext of sexual awakening can’t help but look decidedly icky, all the more so given that Lilla Crawford is only about 13 (the actors I’ve seen in the role in stage productions all read as late teens). I get that it’s supposed to make the audience uncomfortable, but those scenes tread a fine line, and the extent to which that issue has been in the news here recently results in the film ending up somewhere on the wrong side of that line. Mr. Depp’s louche-but-somnambulant performance doesn’t help.

* Overall, in terms of direction, this is by far Rob Marshall’s best movie musical, although he doesn’t surmount all of the problems inherent in putting this very, very stagy piece on screen. The film looks good, the performances are nearly all excellent, and there are a lot of lovely individual moments, even if the whole never quite adds up to the sum of the parts.

* We should not forget, however, that Mr. Marshall’s two other movie musicals to date are Chicago – fitfully brilliant but exhaustingly hyperactive, and a film whose director clearly didn’t entirely trust his material – and Nine, which was a nearly-unparalleled flaming cinematic Hindenburg which took almost everyone in its impressively starry cast down with it. “Rob Marshall’s best movie musical” is not a particularly high bar.

* And it’s a pity that the one thing – apart from every decision connected to the appearance in the film of Mr. Johnny Depp – that Mr. Marshall really botches is the ending. Having the Witch sing “Children Will Listen” in voice-over over the final scene is a cop-out, particularly given that we see Emily Blunt’s Baker’s Wife as (presumably) a ghost, and slicing off the final reprise of the title song so that it plays as a standalone piece over the end credits means that the film doesn’t end so much as just stop.

* In the final analysis, then, it’s a disappointment. I enjoyed a lot of individual elements in the film – it’s often very funny, it has a great cast, the songs are often beautifully staged, and it’s always interesting and sometimes enchanting to look at – but taken as a whole, it really doesn’t work. If you love the show – or Sondheim – you’ll need to see it, and you’ll probably want the DVD (though maybe not the soundtrack album) – but once you’ve seen it, you’ll very quickly go back to the two available videos of stage productions and the various cast albums. The film is a valiant effort, but in the end, this material belongs on the stage.

Grab the buggers by the bollocks!

If I wore mascara, I’d have looked like a zebra by the end of the opening number. It’s not that I’m a soft touch – Bambi leaves me resolutely dry-eyed – but there’s a short list of things that, in a theatre or concert hall (or, more rarely, a cinema) are capable of reducing me to emotional wreckage. Billy Elliot is very near the top of that list. Not the original film, though – it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t have that effect on me. The stage musical, on the other hand, is a different story. Fortunately this time I was prepared. I’d bought tissues. Lots and lots of tissues.

And I wasn’t even seeing it “properly”, in the theatre. Yesterday, a special performance of the show was broadcast live to cinemas across the UK and Europe (it will be shown later in other territories). I’m not always that much of a fan of live broadcasts of theatre, whether on TV or in the cinema; too often, they end up being somewhat disappointing, not least because a performance which is designed to play to the back of a 1200-seat theatre (or a 3000-seat concert hall) can register very differently on a flatscreen TV or an iPad or a giant cinema screen. Under those circumstances, work which would register as subtle if you saw it “in person” often (though not invariably) comes across as either shrill or (worse) strangely blank. The camera, also, often doesn’t move quite as much as it needs to, and it’s very easy for a filmed stage performance to end up seeming listless and rather static. It’s a great idea to film stage performances – it opens up work done in a single location to a much wider audience, usually at a price that’s lower than the cost of a theatre ticket, and of course that’s a good thing, and for organisations like the National, any additional revenue from cinema screenings must be very welcome. It’s just that the result isn’t always successful.

So, yes, I had some misgivings before it started, although they didn’t stop me from booking a ticket (£16 at a cinema a tram-ride from home vs. West End ticket prices plus the train-fare to London makes the cinema screening a relative bargain). I’ve seen the show in the theatre a couple of times before, and sobbed through it both times (and as I said, that’s not something that happens to me often); I wasn’t sure it would (or even could) have the same effect in a live screening, even on a very large screen, but I took tissues just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because this particular simultaneous broadcast was done superlatively well – which means, among other things, that I responded to the show precisely the same way in the cinema as I had in the theatre.

And it still seems as fresh as it did when it opened nine and a half years ago. A lot of the adult actors who’ve worked on it have said in interviews that the presence of a rotating cast of children stops the performances from going stale; whatever the reason, what I saw yesterday certainly didn’t play like a show that had been running the better part of a decade. The kids, of course, were phenomenal, but they always are in this show, and Elliot Hanna is probably as good a Billy as there has ever been. There’s also terrific work from the adult ensemble, with Deka Walmsley giving a particularly moving performance as Billy’s dad, and Ruthie Henshall – a big-name replacement – doing what might be the finest work of her career as Mrs. Wilkinson, the dance teacher who notices Billy’s potential and pushes to find him a way out of Easington. She’s not necessarily obvious casting – even after seeing her play Roxie Hart, the kind of bristly backstreet sarcasm the role needs is not the first thing I’d associate with her, and the music isn’t the greatest fit for her voice – but she nails it.

She’s helped – like everyone else – by the production team’s clever, careful planning of where to point the camera. The lengthy “Solidarity” sequence – which I think is still the single finest piece of musical staging I have ever seen – must be nightmarishly complicated to film, because it delivers so much information, and because it compresses events taking place in multiple locations into the same physical space. At the same time, it shows Billy’s slow progress from absolute novice to a dancer of some skill, and a series of pitched battles between striking miners and the police. It’s rendered on screen here with absolute clarity – all the key reaction shots are there, but they also film the choreography so that you can see it properly, instead of filming the dancers from the waist up (see, for example, the movie version of A Chorus Line for a masterclass in how not to film choreography). And that’s true all the way through – at every given point in the show, the camera is looking where you’d want to be looking if you were watching it in the theatre. That sounds simple, but it’s something that these events very often fail to achieve.

The show itself… given Elton John’s other work for the musical stage, to say this is his best score could easily be open to misinterpretation, and that would be unfair. It’s true that the best parts of the score are essentially hymns – the opening “The Stars Look Down” as the miners get the news that a strike has been called, and their proudly defiant admission of defeat in “Once We Were Kings” at the end of the show as they head back to work, the strike having been finally called off by the union – but that goes with the territory: the show, far more than the film, places both the community and the politics front and centre, so of course the score includes at least a couple of socialist protest songs (it’s frankly almost surprising that at no point does anybody in the show break into a chorus of “The Red Flag”). For those songs – and for “Deep into the Ground”, a folk ballad sung to devastating effect by Billy’s father (and, in the last verse, Billy himself) near the top of Act Two – John has, uncharacteristically, dug deep and produced music that is powerfully redolent of both the geographical location and the social milieu in which the show is set. The Thatcher number – a hard-edged rock stomper with a grimly satirical lyric – is the other musical highlight; it, too, fits in perfectly with the show’s period and place.

This is, though, certainly one of those productions in which the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. Some of the rest of the score is (like most of Elton John’s music these days) rather on the bland side – “Electricity” is a jaw-dropping moment of theatre because you are watching a child more or less literally dancing for his life, rather than because of any qualities inherent in the music itself – although it’s never less than pleasant. Lee Hall’s lyrics are best when he keeps the tone conversational, although some of Mrs. Wilkinson’s zingers in “Shine” have a certain sting to them (“It doesn’t matter if you’re special needs/Maimed or lame, or born in Leeds…”), and his book, like his original screenplay, is sometimes shamelessly manipulative. When Mrs. Wilkinson starts singing the letter from Billy’s dead mother, you can feel your strings being pulled; what saves the moment is the artful simplicity of the lyrics, and the devastating restraint with which the scene is performed. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn’t cry; she struggles to control her emotions, and succeeds – which leaves the audience awash.

Other than that moment, though, I’m not sure I can quite explain why the show has the effect on me that it does – and why it continues to have the same effect on repeat visits. Certainly, it’s partly that I remember the strike very clearly – I was eleven years old when it began, my grandparents lived on the edge of a mining community (and were both from mining communities themselves), and I vividly remember the violence in the air as we drove past the picket lines, and my parents telling us to lock the car doors and keep the windows shut. The show’s opening number – the miners singing in solidarity as they go out on strike – is so moving partly because we know what happens next: the government of the day engineered the strike as a means of breaking the unions, and the strike brought about the collapse of the coal industry and essentially destroyed the miners’ communities, putting hundreds of thousands of people out of work. The strike was one of the defining moments of Thatcher’s government, and it’s a good part of the reason she was so hated in some parts of the country; it was also, around the mining communities themselves, as close as we’ve come to civil war. Both sides played dirty; there was fighting in the streets, and the NUM picketers formed the front line in a battle for, essentially, the principles of democratic socialism on which very nearly all the great institutions of postwar Britain had been built. And while the original film of “Billy Elliot” keeps the politics quite firmly in the background, it’s definitely there – indeed, the film’s most moving scene is the moment when Billy’s father decides he’s prepared to cross the picket line to go back to work to raise the money to pay for the audition. The great achievement of the stage musical, as far as I’m concerned, is the way it pushes the community (and therefore the politics) front and centre, without pulling the focus away from Billy himself. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the most commercially-successful piece of theatre Britain has produced in the past twenty years presents a point of view that isn’t merely liberal-left-wing, but out-and-out pre-New-Labour Bennite socialism; the show is set at more or less the precise moment when Britain’s political landscape took a decisive lurch to the right, but Hall, wisely, largely tells the story without editorialising. The show doesn’t lecture the audience about the devastating effect of the strike on Britain’s mining communities – it simply shows us, and that’s far more powerful.

The opening number of “Billy Elliot”, in fact, is basically the final scene of “Journey’s End” or “Blackadder Goes Forth”: the miners are going to war, and they’re facing oblivion, and so the rest of the story becomes something a little different than it was in the film. This is very definitely the story of the community as well as of Billy himself, and it’s also, far more clearly than in the film, about the different ways to escape a place that is dying on its feet. “Grandma’s Song” and “Shine” both point to a kind of cheap escapism via entertainment; crucially, “Grandma’s Song” introduces the idea of dancing as a means of escape, and suggests that without some kind of escape life in Easington would be brutally hard to endure. “Expressing Yourself” is cute, but has a serious point – although he can’t articulate it, Billy gets the idea from Michael that you can transcend your (grim) surroundings by remaining true to your inner self. And the political situation is clearly set up as a barrier to Billy’s escape, far more than it was in the film – indeed, in “Angry Dance” at the end of the first act, the riot police’s shields form a literal barrier, and while Billy repeatedly hurls himself against them, he does not break through. Of course he escapes in the end, but nobody else does, and his escape is mirrored by the image of the miners, in absolute defeat, going back underground. The stage production juxtaposes the two images in a way that the film couldn’t, because cross-cutting just doesn’t have the same effect. Again, playing those two moments against each other is shamelessly manipulative; Hall and Stephen Daldry get away with it because the show’s dialogue and lyrics, throughout, are startlingly unsentimental.

It’s remarkably effective – at least, if the effect it has on me is anything to go by. Centre-stage, you have a child who you know is going to break free from a place that is about as bleak as life in Britain in the 1980s could possibly be – and that child is surrounded by adults whose lives are about to be destroyed. Hall and Daldry (and Elton John) tread a very delicate line – in some ways it’s an incredibly manipulative show, but the characters in it almost never make a direct appeal to your emotions (even true of the letter from the dead mother, although that’s the most manipulative scene in the show). If you fall for it – and not everybody does, although I certainly did – then you fall hook, line and sinker; I am far from the only person I know who sobbed all the way through it (I wasn’t even the only person in the cinema yesterday who sobbed all the way through it). If you add to that the breathtaking artistry of the children in the show – particularly (though not only) the child playing Billy, who has to negotiate a complex acting role and some incredibly strenuous choreography – which is moving in itself, the result is a kind of theatrical perfect storm.

And in the case of this particular performance, there are a few extras thrown in to prick your tear-ducts even further. In the Swan Lake fantasy sequence in the second act, the older Billy is danced by Liam Mower, one of the three Billys from the original cast back in 2005 (Mr. Mower is now a ballet dancer, and has danced the role of the Prince in Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake). Of course, this was announced at the start of the screening; this, too, is a lump-in-the-throat moment, and there’s a tenderness to the scene that I don’t quite remember having been there the last time I saw the show. And then there’s the added post-curtain call dance number featuring (nearly) all the kids who have played Billy in London over the past nine and a half years. It’s absolutely charming, and a lovely celebration of a group of absolutely extraordinary young performers.

The result – and I know I’m gushing here – was quite an event. For all my misgivings about theatrical performances being shown on screen, this one turned out to be a knockout. If you missed it, don’t worry – there’s going to be a DVD, and it’s going to hit the shops before Christmas. Very few stage productions have been filmed as well as this; if you like the show at all (or if you teach theatre), it’s probably going to be an essential purchase.

Just buy a couple of boxes of tissues at the same time. You’ll need them.

Walking on Sunshine

You know how the phrase ‘feelgood movie’ usually makes most sane individuals want to run screaming from the cinema before the trailers are over? Not this time. Sunshine on Leith, a new film musical built, unlikely as it may seem, around the songs of The Proclaimers, is that rare cinematic achievement: an unabashedly feelgood entertainment that doesn’t make you want to set fire to your own eyeballs while jamming steak knives into your ears. In fact, it’s better than that. Not only will it not make you want to self-harm, it might actually even send you out of the cinema – at the end of the film, not the beginning – bathed in sunshine. Given how often the sun shines in Edinburgh, where the film is set, that’s something worth celebrating.

On paper, true, it looks unpromising, although it’s based on a successful stage show (originally presented at Dundee Rep in 2007). And of course, since it’s a jukebox musical, the plot is strung together from a set of vague suggestions from the song lyrics, which shouldn’t help either. Since we’re dealing with The Proclaimers, you’ve probably guessed in advance that someone in the film will be moving abroad so that they can send a Letter From America, that a pair of young Scotsmen will be central to the plot, that someone will be on their way from misery to happiness (aha aha aha), that the cast of characters will include someone called Jean, that there’ll be a (sung) marriage proposal, and that someone will be told they Should Have Been Loved. You would also, faced with the prospect of a Proclaimers musical, probably want to put money on the finale being I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).

It’s not giving anything at all away to reveal that in Stephen Greenhorn’s screenplay, every last one of those predictions comes true. The plot, such as it is, is a sticky mess of Family Drama clichés mixed with boy-meets-girl clichés, plopped down in the middle of the most picture-postcard version of Edinburgh you could possibly imagine. There’s a long-lost daughter, a health crisis, a marriage possibly going off the rails, young love gone wrong, and a whole long list of other plot twists pulled apparently at random from pretty much any early-evening ITV1 drama made at any time during the past thirty years. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest, because this film grabs you in the opening minute and doesn’t let you go.

The short prologue, in fact, sends a clear signal that you’re not in for a hundred-minute cheeseball of a movie: we aren’t in Edinburgh, we’re in Afghanistan, in the back of an armoured personnel carrier that’s one of a convoy of vehicles carrying troops back to base. The convoy moves slowly down the road as the soldiers inside sing Sky Takes the Soul. It’s a stark, powerful opening, and it clearly signals that not everything that follows is quite as fluffy as it looks. The plot follows Ally and Davy, two of the soldiers in that battle bus, as they return home to Edinburgh and try to build a new life following their discharge from the army. Some of their colleagues have been maimed,and some have been killed; their own choices seem limited to working in a call-centre or going back to a place where their lives could be ended at any moment.

And yet, paradoxically, it’s an incredibly charming film. Part of the credit for that goes to Edinburgh itself – as lovingly filmed by George Richmond under the very assured direction of Dexter Fletcher, it looks, here, like a truly enchanted, enchanting city. And more of the credit must go to the songs: divorced from the Reid Brothers’ own rather idiosyncratic performance style, they emerge as not only durable, but beautiful. There’s a flinty, unsentimental poetry to these songs, and an emotional depth that sneaks up on you – but at the same time, this music is fun, and very nearly impossible to resist. It doesn’t matter that the lyrics sometimes have only a tenuous connection to the plot – you can’t help but be carried along for the ride.

The songs are matched, too, by pitch-perfect performances right across the cast. No, not everybody here is a technically perfect singer – Peter Mullan, as you’d expect, sounds like Tom Waits, if Tom Waits had been buried in a pit of gravel and razor blades for the last ten years – but the somewhat artless singing style really suits this music. Kevin Guthrie and George MacKay find the perfect mix of gravity and goofiness as Ally and Davy, and Freya Mavor and Antonia Thomas are absolutely delightful as their girlfriends. Mullan – so often seen playing criminals or thugs – is perfect, rough singing and all, and the supporting performances – including Jason Flemyng as a dour curator who, two-thirds of the way into the film, gets to gyrate through the corridors of the Scottish National Gallery giving a hip-swivelling performance of ‘Should Have Been Loved’ that may, judging by the way he throws himself into it, be the most fun any actor has ever had on a film set – are absolutely spot-on. Towering above them all is Jane Horrocks as Davy’s mum Jean. Without a strong director, Horrocks’s work can be overly cutesy; here, she’s funny when she needs to be, but she approaches the role with enormous restraint, and it pays off in spades. The hospital scene in which she gives a quiet, unshowy rendition of the beautiful title song is the film’s emotional peak (not to mention one of the very best things she’s ever done). It’s a lovely, genuinely moving moment in a film that could easily have come across as painfully contrived.

Fletcher, for his part, does an enormously confident job of negotiating the tricky shifts from speech to song  and back again, and never lets the pace drop, and the result is a taut 100-minute film that picks you up on a wave of energy and never lets you go until the closing credits roll. Of all the movie musicals made over the past decade or so, from Chicago to Phantom to Rent to Mamma Mia to Hairspray to Les Mis, this one is possibly the most purely entertaining. Fletcher and his cast and crew simply never put a foot wrong; by the time that finale rolls around – yes, I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), performed on the plaza outside the Scottish National Gallery by MacKay and Thomas along with, apparently, everybody else who was in Edinburgh that day, you’ll possibly have shed a tear, and you’ll almost certainly have a great big goofy grin all over your face.

One warning: it will be months, probably, before you get that song out of your head afterwards. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

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.