Les Misérables

WFTB Score: 15/20

The plot: Ex-convict Jean Valjean escapes parole and creates a new life for himself and adoptive daughter Cosette in Restoration France, but his nemesis Javert is never far behind. As a student uprising in Paris threatens to turn into all-out civil unrest, Valjean tries to protect Cosette from harm; she can only think of brave young Marius, himself the object of poor Eponine’s affections.

France, 1815: Prisoner 24601, otherwise known as Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), is released from his back-breaking labours in jail with a warning from Officer Javert (Russell Crowe) not to forget him. Life on parole brings its own kind of torture, but when Valjean robs a church of its silver, the kindly Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) makes a bargain for his soul by allowing him to take it. Years later, Valjean is Mayor Madeleine, running a successful business where the foreman exploits the female workers, including Fantine (Anne Hathaway); while the reappearance of Javert makes Valjean neglectful, Fantine is unfairly sacked and falls into selling her hair, teeth and finally herself to support her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen).

Too late, Valjean discovers her plight and resolves to raise Cosette as his own, though other forces are in play as Javert informs him that ‘Valjean’ has been arrested and will be returned to prison. Saving his doppelganger and ‘buying’ Cosette from ghastly innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), Valjean flees again, re-surfacing in the Paris of 1832. The city is a tinderbox, the poor and the liberal threatening an uprising with students Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne) the lead agitators. The Thénardiers are there, sniffing opportunities, though their natural daughter Eponine (Samantha Barks) only has eyes for Marius. When Marius sees the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), he is besotted; but this is surely no time for love, with Javert on Valjean’s heels and the downtrodden populace – surely – about to join a glorious revolution.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should explain that not only have I seen Boublil/ Schönberg/ Kretzmer’s ‘Les Mis’ on stage numerous times – once in Czech – I have all but worn out my copy of the Complete Symphonic Recording: at any one time, I can recite about ninety-seven percent of it. I have even, albeit as a late-night-round-the-piano thing, sung A Little Fall of Rain with a West End Eponine. Therefore, I can’t pretend to be unfamiliar with the show and judge it as a novice, and it goes without saying that I think the story, characters and music are all fantastically strong (they have stood the test of time, so I’m not alone). The music, songs and above all atmosphere of Hooper’s Les Misérables are all faithful enough to the show that uninitiated cinemagoers may well have the same experience I did back in the day: having had the songs played at me ad nauseam, it was only when I had the full visual experience that the whole thing clicked.

Assessed purely as a film, Les Misérables tells Victor Hugo’s tale with flair and a strong narrative drive. Hooper shows us what we don’t see in the theatre, locations seen in a wider context (including from the air) and intimate close-ups. It works perfectly well, the June rebellion coming to life on the streets of Paris, although there’s little that’s particularly innovative aside from Hooper’s insistence on live vocals, which has mixed results; indeed, I’m convinced there are mistakes which are presumably kept in for naturalism, for example Jackman nudging the camera during What Have I Done? (or did I imagine that?) and a couple of lyrical flubs.

However, I can’t assess Les Mis as just a film, and the good news is that Hooper’s adaptation is only likely to disappoint the finickiest of fans. My brain is irreversibly married to the words and flow of the show as they existed circa 1988, but the minor amendments to the text are fine, often helping to explain what’s going on. In places, speech replaces sung recitative and this is fine too, as are occasions where cinematic visuals explain events better than any words. Even the film’s more significant rearrangements, shifting On My Own into the first act and Do You Hear the People Sing? back to the second, work in the context of the film’s subtly altered storyline. These changes all help to keep the action fresh for those in the audience expecting the film to follow a familiar pattern. All of which said, there were a few changes that I didn’t appreciate, mostly those involving Eponine. Barks sings really nicely and, considering this is her first film role, acts well too; so I don’t understand why chunks of her role were cut – including a whole verse of A Little Fall of Rain (and the sad elegy sung following her death – ‘We fight here in her name’). Importantly, Eponine counterbalances the untroubled Cosette, and with her role severely reduced there’s too much of the adequate but unspecial Seyfried (whose voice sounds a little thin and warbly). Valjean sings a new song, Suddenly, as well: it’s instantly forgettable.

So, the film looks good and tells a brilliant story with style, Barks deserves more screen time and Seyfried a little less. The really important question is ‘do the leads pull it off?’ The answer is, to quote Evita, “a qualified ‘yes’”. As Valjean, Jackman begins brilliantly, and throughout the first act impresses time and again with both his musicality and acting prowess. However, when it comes to Valjean’s big moment, the wonderful (and high) Bring Him Home, Hugh reveals the limits of his range. Unfortunately, he really doesn’t do the song justice (for comparison, seek out versions by Colm Wilkinson, Stig Rossen, Gary Morris or Alfie Boe) and, no doubt influenced by this disappointment, I couldn’t fully enjoy his performance after this point. Happily, his final scenes are as affecting as you could hope for, even accounting for Eponine’s absence.

Opposite Jackman’s soulful Valjean, Russell Crowe’s Javert is a let-down. It’s not that Russ can’t sing: Oliver Reed in Tommy can’t sing. Crowe hits his notes, but (oddly for a famously,er, gung-ho chap) there’s no confidence in them, or behind his eyes; the sheer effort of a live performance drains Crowe of the furious moral energy Javert should possess, and it doesn’t help that the songs are just not in the right key for him, depriving him of the opportunity to project. That said, The Confrontation still works a treat.

You might think that a compromised co-star would cause Les Misérables big problems; however, Crowe’s deficiencies are more than compensated for by Anne Hathaway’s incredibly moving Fantine, who (to use a cliché) is worth the price of admission alone. Hathaway is superb in a role which is all too brief, but packs an incredibly powerful punch and features a late, beautiful reprise. A million talent show hopefuls – one or two quite successful, I understand – have had a go at I Dreamed a Dream, but none of them compare with the raw pain in Hathaway’s performance.

Elsewhere, performances are good enough without threatening to set the West End or Broadway on fire. Eddie Redmayne is pretty good – if you don’t compare him with Michael Ball, who had rather less recourse to falsetto as Marius – although he’s outshone by Aaron Tveit’s feisty Enjolras. As the comic relief, Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen both pass muster, though Helena is still in Sweeney Todd mode and Sacha is apparently working off his Hugo accent. Allen’s young Cosette sings the cutesy (and abridged) Castle on a Cloud well, while Daniel Huttlestone is a lively and tuneful Gavroche; I do wish the barricade section had stuck a little more closely to the stage show, but I understand why it happens differently and – to be honest – too much white light might have proved emotional overload, when there were plenty of tell-tale sniffs in evidence as it was.

Rather brilliantly, Les Misérables provides the best of both worlds for producer Cameron Mackintosh. It’s an accomplished film which tells its story well and features some lovely performances of well-loved songs; on the other hand, it’s not so good that it makes future visits to the show redundant. It may even boost ticket sales for the musical (as if they were needed!) for those who want to see the unexpurgated product sung by the professionals. Hooper’s realisation of Mackintosh’s long-held ambition* is just about everything you’d want it to be, give or take a few personal preferences; but there’s no replacing the real thing. Now where did I put that tape?

NOTES: My souvenir brochure from my first visit to see Les Mis at the Palace Theatre has an advert with the famous cover girl holding two tickets. ‘In 1993’, it says boldly, ‘Tri-Star Pictures and Cameron Mackintosh present Les Misérables’. Just the twenty years’ wait, then.

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