Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Miserables, the musical sensation


I have been mesmerised about Les Miserables (both book and musical version) for years and years and it's a delight to finally see it gobsmacking the world and receiving such global high praise. That being said, and because I'm nothing if not judgemental about my entertainment, I am now going to vent about it, good and bad, and everything in between.

Generally speaking, the movie is extremely well made, the cast is one casting mistake short of perfect (we'll soon come to that), the sets, make up, costumes, the sound mixing and the nip and tuck of the songs is all very successfully accomplished. For musical lovers there are plenty of small appearances in the movie that make our hearts an extra bit warmer. Like seeing Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean) playing the bishop or Frances Ruffelle (the original Eponine) playing one of the whores, among others.

I liked that so many things that are forcefully overlooked when turning a 1400 page classic into a musical were still preserved. Gavroche's elephant, the fact that he dies singing to spite the guards, seeing Gillenormand (Marius' grandfather), the change of address from the Rue Plumet to the Rue de L'Homme D'Arme, Fantine selling her teeth, Fauchelevent and the covent, Grantaire waking up in the morning and joining Enjolras to be shot by his side instead of fleeing and overall seeing so many characters that in a live musical would be only nameless extras (and still are, but in this format you can actually see them and recognize them (in case you've read the book or know the story in a bit more depth)).

Also, when filming a musical, usually the songs are recorded first in a studio and then the actors lip sync on set to that previous recording. What makes this movie ground-breaking is that it completely breaks convention by allowing the songs to be recorded on set, so that the actors are actually singing when they're on camera. That gives them much more freedom to act and makes the voice the actual lead (instead of a performer following the orchestra, the orchestra is then following the actor). Of course, it's not always as pretty as some traditional versions because again there is no pre-set to fall back on and not all acting choices are good and also just because something is done differently doesn't mean it's good (or bad). I do believe that this bold move was the right one because we're not exactly aiming at filming another pretty version of Les Miserables, and for the kind of honest and gritty portrait intended this was the best way to go.

It is a shame that the musical (in whatever shape we give it) can never fully portray every little thing that make the novel such a masterpiece. In an alternate Universe where a five hour long musical is possible I would've liked to see a lot that alas will remain unknown to the vast majority of people that lack the time and/or will to tackle the novel. The story of Marius' father, Fauchelevent's story and the whole convent chapter, the Champmatthieu affair, the episode with the Jondrettes at the Gorbeau House, Thenardier and Marius' father in Waterloo, the downfall of Father Mabeuf, all the other Thenardier children, the whole final chapter with Thenardier and Marius when Valjean's true valour shines through, etc, etc. Living in the real world, however, I believe this will never come to pass.

Anyway, onwards to the casting! Hugh Jackman, perfect, flawless, nothing more to add (though I'm pretty sure you can see some bits where he's mentally cursing Colm Wilkinson for all the absurdly high and long notes at the end of most songs). Anne Hathaway - oscar! Raw and uncomfortable, which in this sort of movie is high praise! Mingling beautiful vocals with an honest and heart-breaking performance.

Here I must add something! I've heard people say time and again that said performer sings better than someone else. Fine, but what people often forget is that in a musical is not all about the voice, it's about the overall performance. I've seen people with great voices humbling themselves and "downgrading" their voice in order to be true to their character and to create a dramatic (or comic) effect. Lea Salonga - one of my favourite performers - gave her sweet lovely voice a hysterical edge when portraying Fantine's despair and I love her all the more for it because it made the character so much more real. On the other hand, this also means that actors who are not singers can still be great musical performers. Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd, or Dame Judi Dench's rendition of Send in the Clowns.

Which brings us to Russell Crowe, the only grave casting mistake on the entire movie (when even the smallest extras are famous in the musical industry). You may say "Well don't be so harsh, he's an actor, not a singer!", which would only enfuriate me all the more since it demonstrates how little Mr Crowe must know of his character, judging by his performance alone. Javert is a binary man. Things are either white or black, right or wrong, there is no in-between. He is a man guided by law alone, not conscience. He is methodical and mathematical. This must be reflected on his singing. The best Javerts I've seen all have great enunciation and are very precise with the musical score. They don't just sing like it's coming straight from the heart, that's for other characters! And even if you were to attempt something different with Javert, at the very least there should be some meaning behind the words being sung (but that I mean feeling and stressing key words for dramatic effect, and not singing like you're reading the phonebook!). Mr Crowe sings like someone trying to spread butter on toast with their voice, which is just the wrong image for the poor police inspector!

Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter were good but uneventful (and by that I mean not a revelation since they've both done parts that were somehow similar). I would've like Madame Thenardier to be a bit more like Jenny Galloway portrays her, but oh well! Samantha Barks makes the loveliest Eponine, while Amanda Seyfried plays Cosette just as she is - a little bird, an insipid damsel in distress dull as toast (but unfortunately there's nothing to do there, that's Victor Hugo's fault - even though Claire Danes has managed to make her almost interesting in the past). Eddie Redmayne was a decent Marius and then surprised me and took my breath away in Empty Chair at Empty Tables.

And that's most of my venting. Though, if something else must be said, I'd add that even though in this sort of medium a decent amount of cropping is needed (as a cinema audience you don't need to hear a refrain twice and there's a lot that can be implied and so the lyrics don't need to be so obvious) and I've mentioned earlier that is was well done, still I do believe there'd've been some room for improvement; when chopping some verses out you should make sure that what you're left with still rhymes and also some songs were performed in such a natural way that made them sound a bit too much like long stretches of recitative (and I kept waiting for the proper song to start when actually we were already well into it).

But (if anyone is still reading this... if not, tough luck!) don't let me put you off the thing. I'm just picky and a bit of a snob! Go see it (it's only three hours of your life) and see for yourselves. I'm planning to go again, so it couldn't've been that bad ;)


Ruby Lu said...

I read your whole review! I too, saw the stage show in London and was blown away by it and became a bit obsessed with the sound track, playing it endlessly while in the car 'on my own'. When I heard it was going to be made into a film I couldn't wait to see it and thought I'd want to go and see it numerous times. I saw it a couple of weeks ago with my sister and really struggled through the first third of the movie (the singing was no where near the standard of the live show) and was quite painful at times. I really wondered if I was going to be able to stay until the end. It did pick up and the last two thirds of the film was better. My daughter has asked me to take her to see it, which I will, but I'm not really looking forward to sitting through it again. I 'ditto' all your positives about the movie but found Hugh Jackman's renditions quite cringingly tuneless in parts, Amanda Seyfried's singing was painfully high-pitched, Russell Crowe's singing was better than I expected, Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne were very good and finally Anne Hathaway was brilliant!

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