My tolerance for musical films wavers depending on the style and, of course, the quality of the work in front of me. Last weekend, for example, I watched Robert Altman’s Nashville, and enjoyed it immensely; it’s a brilliant, brilliant film. The next day I watched a very different kind of musical: Tom Hooper and William Nicholson’s adaptation of Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, a well-received and financially-successful movie that was nominated for Best Picture at last year’s Academy Awards. This production is far grander than the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Chris O’Donnell, and its ‘look at this!’ extravagance certainly insists on drawing out mumbled praise, but the overall experience for me was about as enjoyable as root canal surgery. If I never see Russell Crowe’s rosy-cheeked, high definition face belting out a half-sung line again it’ll be too soon.
Having lived in big cities for around 15 years I’ve dipped my toe in enough times to realise that I have an intense dislike for the kind of theatrical pop-opera mega-musicals that run for decades with a seemingly endless supply of fans supporting them; naturally, as a result, I’m a little cool towards the film adaptations. Generally I find these shows to be overlong, over-the-top (yes, I know that’s kind of the appeal for a lot of people) and the thought of having to remain in a seat for around three hours while a bunch of people on stage sing 99% of the libretto at me in an irritating, blustery, uber-dramatic fashion brings me out in cold sweats. Why have I even bothered going to see any of these performances, you may well be asking? Well, it’s fulfilment of the typically-dutiful boyfriend / husband / relative role, plus I quite enjoy being angry: it can be fun if you’re able to manage it. But even I, as an avowed hater of most things West End and Broadway, appreciate that there are several reasons why these works are so popular, the same reasons why some fans pay to see them over and over again. Although I hasten to add I appreciate this very grudgingly indeed.
I’ve never actually seen Les Misérables on stage and I haven’t watched the Neeson version either (nor will I: life’s too short) so, at the very least, this offered an opportunity to see what the fuss was about. For the uninitiated the story takes place in 19th Century France and charts around 20 years in the life of ex-convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose initial stay in prison for stealing a loaf of bread was lengthened by several failed escape attempts. Valjean’s nemesis is the dedicated police inspector Javert (Crowe), who subscribes to the old leopard / spots idiom and intends to imprison Valjean once again after the latter breaks his parole. Nine years later Javert is the Chief of Police while Valjean has ended up as the mayor of Montreuil. One of Valjean’s factory workers is Fantine (Oscar-snaffling Anne Hathaway, very good), whose illegitimate daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen when younger, Amanda Seyfried when older) is living with crooked innkeepers the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both game and typically over-the-top). Circumstances result in Valjean deciding that he must raise Cosette, and nine years later they’re living in Paris, where the gap between rich and poor is widening at a pace. Cosette becomes embroiled in a love triangle thanks to her attraction to Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young student revolutionary planning a rebellion against the French monarchy. But wait: who’s that singing his way up the street at the front of a column of policemen? Why it’s Ruddy Cheeked Russell, of course, intent on putting a stop to this rabble-rousing nonsense and keen to put Jean Valjean away for good.
Hooper, who won the Academy Award for Best Director for The King’s Speech, has helmed a spectacular film. A number of shots are included in this adaptation that simply cannot be fully realised on a theatre stage (Rushmore Academy excepted) and several are worthy of the kind of hyperbole that’s often bestowed on musical theatre: the opening scene alone sees hundreds of prisoners towing a huge boat into a shipyard, while there are numerous glorious, marvellous, wonderful, tremendous, jaw-dropping, sublime, joyous and staggering shots of 19th Century Paris from above that recall Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Meanwhile, at street level, the various numbers and scenes are finely-choreographed, with a huge cast of costumed and make-up-drenched extras adding to the cacophony in beautifully-designed sets; this is most impressive when the action eventually shifts to the French capital.
The director’s calling card is his camerawork and the framing, and the movement of the camera here certainly increases that faint sense of being there, weaving and bobbing among the many coughing, spluttering and singing characters. As with The King’s Speech Hooper often places his actors on the edges of the frame, and the technique serves him well once more, emphasising the main players during the many crowded scenes. At times the cumulative effect of camera and actor movement is dizzying: personal taste will dictate whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
I suppose it’s a sign of the film’s quality that I didn’t outright hate it, though I did find it overlong and I can’t ignore the fact that the near-constant delivery of lines via the medium of song wore me down within about five minutes (yes I know it’s a musical, and yes I expected singing as a result, but Mont Blanc, Rodders this film is relentless). It’s hard to enjoy any performance when it feels like you’re being beaten over the head into submission, and everything about Les Misérables feels designed to do just that. It doesn’t help that somewhere along the Long Road Of Adaptations many characters have been bestowed with those exaggerated Cockney urchin accents that are mystifyingly popular in mainstream theatre, and consequently nearly everything sung or said is over-emphasised with an irritatingly-fake London twang, but luckily none of the Antipodeans or Americans involved disgrace themselves with a Dick Van Dyke. The more confident cast members – Baron Cohen, for example – even venture as far as attempting stereotypical Parisian accents filtered through their overly ripe Lahndahn-ese. Naturally it’s awful.
The singing and acting, as you would expect, is of varying quality: Jackman and Hathaway are good, and it’s no surprise that either were lauded with awards and nominations following the film’s release. Bonham-Carter and Baron Cohen reinforce their reputations for eccentricity and their comic turns are actually quite enjoyable, even if their first song ‘Master Of The House’ feels like it goes on for a-hundred-and-one eternities. Crowe has already received a great deal of criticism for his singing and I won’t add any more insults on top of the gentle poking of fun above; ultimately, like many of the other actors here, he has stepped out of his comfort zone and the man cannot be charged with a lack of effort. Plus I like the fact his singing flaws have deliberately been left in. Who wants perfection? It’s boring.
Just to make it clear: I’ll never be able to judge popular musicals like this objectively as I categorically don’t like them. And, consequently, I didn’t like Les Misérables, although I didn’t hate it. However, if you’re the kind of weird freak of society that somehow derives pleasure from this nonsense there are definitely elements of this adaptation to admire and, I dare say, enjoy. And, as far as I’m concerned, you’re more than welcome to them.
Directed by: Tom Hooper
Written by: William Nicholson, Victor Hugo, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham-Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Running Time: 157 minutes