Features Published 17 January 2013

Les Misérables

As Tom Hooper's film of the much loved stage musical finally hits cinemas, a group of our critics talk tears, vocal highs and lows and the aesthetics of Victor Hugo.
Natasha Tripney

Natasha Tripney: Right, is anyone going to pick up this stick and run with it?

Maybe the place to start is the vocal performances? Or lack of. I thought Anne Hathaway acquitted herself very well, even though her performance was not perhaps fully deserving of some of the surrounding hoopla (there was a similar critical response, I seem to remember, when Charlize Theron played ‘ugly’ in Monster). I thought her performance as Fantine was incredibly raw and affecting. But Russell Crowe. Seriously. Why?

Julia Rank: Confession – I’m an ex-Les Mis fangirl, and I enjoyed the film in spite of everything (even Russell Crowe) and, yes, a few tears were shed at the end.  But, I won’t be buying the soundtrack. My biggest disappointment was Hugh Jackman because he can do better (just listen to him in Oklahoma!). The choppy speak-singing quickly got on my nerves and I longed for them just to sing the score the way that it’s written (well, maybe not Russell Crowe – don’t get me started. Just dreadful, musically and dramatically. I would have loved to have seen Alan Rickman in that role).

The opening scene with the convicts pulling the boats to shore was the high point visually. A pity it didn’t sustain this level of visual interest, lapsing into cod-Dickensian aesthetics (I suspect much of the budget went into this scene!).

I particularly liked the part where Valjean lifted the flagpole as we don’t witness his superhuman strength on stage until the runaway cart, when Javert comments ‘Can this be true?/I don’t believe what I see./A man your age to be as strong as you are./A memory stirs-/You make me think of a man from years ago…”, you’d be forgiven for not knowing what he’s talking about.

Having Fantine sing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ at the height of her degradation was also nicely judged. On stage, she sings it immediately after being sacked from the factory and before she starts selling herself and there is something particularly poignant about this anthem of helplessness and disappointment being performed when she’s sunk as low as she can go. Film critics seem to go nuts over a lack of vanity and I do think that Anne Hathaway’s performance, strong as it was, has been overhyped.

The Marius-Eponine relationship made sense in spite of all the cuts. I really don’t like it when Marius is too indulgent and gives the impression of encouraging her, and Eddie Redmayne conveyed the sense of being a bit freaked out by her well. On a side note, I thought the casting of an unknown as Eponine (Samantha Barks, very good) was one of the more unexpected pieces of casting. Prior to Susan Boyle, I would have thought that ‘On My Own’ was the most famous solo from the show (a concert at my girls’ school never went by without a rendition of it); Eponine is a major draw for a teenage audience, and she’s been invisible from most of the marketing material I’ve seen.

I was disappointed that Grantaire’s drunken cynicism (he’s arguably the best of the minor characters) wasn’t highlighted, but I did like the way that he and his adored Enjolras died together, mirroring each others’ movements. Most of the pretty, chiselled barricade boys were played by stage actors, so there were strong voices and a natural, student-y rapport between them, though a little more could have been done to individualise them, even in such a limited space of time.

My favourite thing about the whole film was having the Bishop lead Valjean to heaven. I’ve never understood why it isn’t done that way on stage. For some reason, Eponine is included in this scene- I suppose it’s so that she and Fantine can harmonise prettily together, but it makes no sense as she’s nothing to do with Valjean. That was perfect and exactly the way it should be.

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Photo: Universal

Anne Hathaway as Fantine. Photo: Universal Pictures

Alice Saville:  I agree with most of what Julia says, but probably have a slightly different perspective because I’d never seen Les Mis before in any form, and don’t have any acquaintance with the score. Flawed performances aside, I still got a really strong sense of most of the songs and tunes, and thought Anne Hathaway put across ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ beautifully, almost putting the troubled ghost of SuBo’s rendition to rest. Watching the film of Mamma Mia! (sort of a surreal masterpiece but that’s another matter entirely) has made me realise how truly horrific non-singing actors in musicals can be so I was actually pleasantly surprised by the singing in general. But yes, Russell Crowe was abysmal, singing straight out straining, hands folded, like a boy in a school concert, without a hint of expression of character. His descent into the sewage fountains was long overdue.

I thought Cosette junior did nicely, especially in comparison with her absolutely embarrassing innkeeper guardians, and loved the Eponine plotline; I was expecting her to be a malevolent brunette, sabotaging Cosette’s happiness in true fairytale style, so was pleasantly surprised by the unrequited love plot-line, even if most of her clothes seemed to disintegrate in action.

The visual aspects of the film were my main sticking point – Victor Hugo’s books in general, especially Les Miserables and Hunchback, are fixated on the architecture of Paris, on its layers and idiosyncrasies. I’m glad they got such mileage out of the plaster elephant which is such an oddly mesmerising symbol of decaying ideals, I’d be interested to know whether its in the stage version. And as Julia says the dock scene was gorgeous. But so many other parts just looked cheap and fake, especially the flyovers; a lot of it was generically ‘European’ but with none of the charm of a Miyasaki film, and had a kind of London Dungeons fake griminess. It never felt particularly French to me, let alone Parisian; Perfume, though insanely overblown, I think did a better job of capturing Paris.

So which bits did everyone cry in? Apart from the end? I got overwhelmed by the revolutionary songs for some reason, and got much more invested in the barricades scenes than I expected to.

Natasha Tripney: No one’s touched on the Thénardiers yet. I’m not sure I would have minded Helena Bonham Carter doing yet another version of her Bellatrix Lovettsham persona or Sacha Baron Cohen’s slightly Fagin-esque turn if either of them had been even remotely funny. But they weren’t. So I did.

Pringle, Wicker, do you want to jump in at any point?

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier. Photo: Universal Pictures

Helena Bonham Carter as Madame Thénardier. Photo: Universal Pictures

Stewart Pringle: OK then. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen have form for sapping the humour out of barnstorming comic numbers, their ‘Worst Pies in London’ and ‘Pirelli’s Miracle Elixier’ were both deeply disappointing low-lights of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd. If anything, their rendition of ‘Master of the House’, which is one of the few songs in Les Mis that I would propose as an all-time classic, is even worse. Neither Carter nor Cohen can sing, which isn’t the end of the world on its own, but coupled with the bizarre French accent Cohen has picked and Carter’s lack of charisma and a song that should bring down the house never even made me grin. Some of the blame must lie with director Tom Hooper, who has tossed everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, with cats tails being lopped off, baskets full of eyeballs and lavatory trap-doors, creating a confused and unfunny mayhem that’s like Ed Gein run amok in Wallace and Gromit’s workshop. But less fun than that sounds.

What’s worse is that the Thénardiers have been so utterly de-clawed. We’re usually presented with a couple who, despite surface appearances, despise one another. When Alun Armstrong and the amazing Jenny Galloway sing ‘Master…’ we see that burbling resentment, making the song so much funnier and their reciprocity all the more grim. Then for some reason Hooper plays them entirely for laughs through the rest of the film. Even the sight of Thénardier sifting through the sewers to prise valuables from the shit-stained dead loses its ghoulishness, and that final appearance where they pop up at the wedding is totally fumbled. The Thénardiers are the cockroaches of Paris, they survive and triumph no matter what occurs in the world above. We lose that almost entirely in the film, and I think that’s it’s most egregious mistake.

Here’s the definitive ‘Master of the House’, I think.

Tom Wicker:  Like Alice, I came to this without having seen the stage version, so my aversion to the Thenardiers isn’t as strong as Stewart’s – mostly through ignorance. Nonetheless, I will punch the air on the day that Helen Bonham Carter realises that there is more than one role out there. Come back Merchant Ivory, all is forgiven.

My main problem with her and Sacha Baron Cohen’s characters – as presented here – goes to my issue with the overall aesthetic of the film. In so many ways, this is one of the least ‘stagey’ of musicals: from the historical sweep of the story to the building degradation of an abandoned and abused French society.

Tom Hooper’s adaptation opens powerfully well, with the slaves pulling in the ship creating a visceral sense of grinding hopelessness and numbing misery on a massive scale.

But then enter the Thenardiers and their inn of comedy grotesques and everything turns a bit Baz Luhrmann, with the low-camera shots, surreal distorted buildings and painterly sky. I found this increasingly jarring against the backdrop of the ‘natural’ in-studio singing – shown to its best effect by Anne Hathaway’s gap-toothed, teary and furious rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – and the slaughter of the boys at the barricade. It felt increasingly (and distractingly) like two films pulling uneasily at one another, with the final act being a clunky imposition of one on the other – Occupy Moulin Rouge, if you will.

Perhaps, as Stewart says, a more full-blooded approach to the Thenardiers, one which didn’t shy away from their pitch-black comic potential, would have sharpened the film’s edge and made the join of the two styles less awkward. But as it stands, all the poor people look like cartoons and the rich kids like noble models, rather muffling the musical’s saltier suggestion that these are bored, wealthy boys co-opting a cause rooted in real suffering.

To this end, even though he sounds as though his balls are in a vice when he strains for the high notes, I thought Eddie Redmayne did a good job with Marius, particularly in the hauntingly good ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’. I felt he conveyed well the loss and futility of what had just happened, singing somewhere between a whisper and shell-shock. He gave his character depth in a way that Amanda Seyfried never managed with Cosette (although, admittedly, she isn’t given much to work with).

I didn’t have much of a problem with the half-spoken narrative singing. It actually helped to ease me into the largely dialogue-free story, in a way that didn’t feel as self-sealed as, say, Evita. What did surprise me was how unmemorable much of the music was and, in the case of ‘Castle on a Cloud’, how twee it could be. But then I’m not a big fan of the type of moppet-haired child character that musical theatre attracts – typified by Gavroche, possibly the most irritating performance I’ve seen on screen for a long time. He was just relentless. Even one bullet wasn’t enough to stop him singing.

And as far as Russell Crowe? Everyone’s already said it…

Julia Rank: Yes, Gavroche was seriously obnoxious. I’ve never seen a stage Gavroche half as annoying.

Les Miserables: young revolutionaries

Les Miserables: young revolutionaries. Photo: Universal Pictures

Natasha Tripney: I do wonder how many of the elements which jar about the performances are down to Hooper. Just as Hugh Jackman is capable of a stronger vocal performance than the one he delivers here, so can Crowe exude menace when called upon. He’s played driven zealous tormented men before with much more success and I’ll admit to having a considerable soft spot for his Jack Aubrey.

But though Peter Bradshaw, in his Guardian review, calls Crowe’s performance “open, human” and ”sweetly unselfconscious”, to my mind most of the time he just looked constipated with the effort of it all.I also found it odd that a film which fetishes filth as it does, revelling in human secretions, all sweat, saliva, snot, and tears (so very many tears), with the camera clambering up nostrils and nesting in verminous scalps – not to mention a river of shit so foul it would probably make Andy Dufresne throw in his rock hammer and opt for another decade fiddling the warden’s accounts – that all the young revolutionary types manning the barricades were so gloriously chiselled of cheekbone and tousled of hair. But despite all these reservations I was definitely crying tears of my own by the end and I know I wasn’t alone.

Lois Jeary: Oh you’re all heartless! I could barely see I was so teary. I just absolutely bloody loved it. Twice.

I don’t remember the last time I saw anything that swept me up from the very first moment and then maintained that intensity throughout. It doesn’t give you time to catch your breath and that makes for an emotionally draining experience that I find to be rare on stage or screen. I love that Hooper has the balls to keep a tight shot on a single face for the duration of a song and doesn’t feel the need to cut or swoop or use any fancy techniques of the craft when he doesn’t need to.

I don’t even have an issue with Russell Crowe (and I’m waiting for the time when I reject this idea entirely and realise what an idiot I am) but I actually like it when people can’t sing that well if it isn’t detrimental to the character. I know musicals are meant to be tits and teeth and jazz hands and oh what a jolly old tune, but I feel real voices bring a humanity that is lacking in most musical theatre that I see. In point of contrast, I love Redmayne’s performance of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, but at times in ensemble his distinctly choirboy voice felt more incongruous with the character or overarching scene than Crowe ever did. I guess the issue is whether a poor vocal performance is distracting or not, and that will come down to personal preference.

Everything has already been said on Hathaway – a lesson to every talent-show contestant and Broadway wannabe on how that song should actually be sung.

Structurally the film made much more sense to me than the stage version – especially the opening sequence seeing Jean Valjean’s trials and tribulations, and the ending also (which I agree felt a little rushed) – and I like that the film (so I am told) brought in more elements from the novel too. ‘Do you Hear the People Sing?’, without fail, makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but I thought the staging of it within the funeral procession was incredibly powerful.

Interesting discussion on the Thénardiers. I hadn’t thought so much about them but I agree that their parasitic resilience was not fully explored…

Tom Wicker: I completely agree about the close-ups: they were one of the best aspects of the film, emphasising the power and pain of the performances in the quieter, more intimate scenes.

Stewart Pringle: Anne Hathaway was bloody brilliant. And I did cry. Four times. So all criticism filtered through tears. Many tears.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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