Musical of the week: Les Miserables
Like a diabolically potent combination of Lionel Bart and Leni Riefenstahl, the movie version of Les Misérables has arrived, based on the hit stage show adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel set among the deserving poor in 19th-century France, which climaxes with the anti-monarchist Paris uprising of 1832.
Even as a non-believer in this kind of “sung through” musical, I was battered into submission by this mesmeric and sometimes compelling film, featuring a performance of dignity and intelligence from Hugh Jackman and an unexpectedly vulnerable singing turn from that great, big, grumpy old bear, Russell Crowe. With the final rousing chorus of Do you hear the people sing? the revolutionary patriotic fervour is so bizarrely stirring that you’ll feel like marching out of the cinema wrapped in the Tricolore and travelling to Russia to find Gérard Depardieu and tear him limb from limb.
Just as some celebrities are so successful they come to be known only by their first names, this is known everywhere by its abbreviation “Lay Miz”, impossible to say without a twinkle of camp.
It has enjoyed staggering global success on stage since 1985. This version, directed by Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech fame, has all the singing recorded live on set, with actors listening to a pianist through earpieces and the orchestral soundtrack added later. The result is a bracing, rough-and-ready immediacy from performers who can and do hold a tune.
Les Misérables tells the story of Valjean (Jackman), a proud and decent man imprisoned for stealing bread to save his sister’s family from starving. Once released, he is viciously pursued by police officer Javert (Crowe) for breaking the terms of his parole, but makes a Hardyesque career leap into respectability, becoming a mayor and factory owner. His path crosses that of his poor employee Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whose grown-up daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) is to fall fatefully in love with revolutionary firebrand Marius (Eddie Redmayne) just as Paris erupts in violence and as Valjean must make his final reckoning with Javert.
The film conquers its audience with weapons all its own: not passion so much as passionate sincerity; not power so much as overwhelming force. Every line, every note, every scene is belted out with diaphragm-quivering conviction and unbroken, unremitting intensity. The physical strength of this movie is impressive: an awe-inspiring and colossal effort, just like Valjean’s as he lifts the flagpole at the beginning of the film. You can almost see the movie’s muscles flexing and the veins standing out like whipcords on its forehead. After 158 minutes, you really have experienced something. What exactly, I’m still not sure.
The most affecting scene comes in the opening act, as Valjean is astonished and moved by the Christ-like charity of the Bishop (Colm Wilkinson) who takes him in, forgives him for attempting to steal and protects him from arrest (“I have saved your soul for God”). Jackman sings a soliloquy directly to camera (“Why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”), eyes blazing with a new knowledge. There’s no doubt about it: this scene packs a massive punch.
Other moments are less successful. Hathaway’s fervent rendition of the Susan Boyle standard I Dreamed a Dream, in extreme close-up, has been much admired, but for me her performance and appearance is a bit Marie Antoinetteish. Her poverty-stricken character is supposed to have pitifully sold her teeth to a street dentist. Conveniently, this turns out to mean just her back teeth: her dazzlingly white front teeth are untouched.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are great as the dodgy innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, but the crowd scenes have a “thumbs in the waistcoat” feel, and when smudgy-faced urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone) addresses grown-ups in Cockney as “my dear” then we really are in Jack Wild territory.
The star is Jackman. But Crowe offers the most open, human performance I have seen from him. His singing is so sweetly unselfconscious that there is something paradoxically engaging about his Javert, even when he’s being a cruel, unbending law officer and royalist spy. I’ll never love Les Misérables the way its fans love it and I’m agnostic about Claude-Michel Schönberg’s surging score, with its strange, subliminal weepiness. But as big-screen spectacle, this is unique. — © Guardian News & Media 2013