20 Jan 2013

Les Misérables: a film review

I don’t usually write film reviews – mostly due to the fact that my knowledge on the matter gives me no authority to write about them – but, I feel obliged to break my silence by a rare film that moved me.

Most people know the iconic story of Les Misérables. It is one that has been thrown at us by a vast armoury of media: the novel, the Broadway adaptation and, now, the Christmas blockbuster. I was a little sceptical when I went to the cinema to watch the film but I was sold. Even those who are not lovers of musical theatre will enjoy their emotions being manipulating by Working Title Films’ epic new film.

Les Misérables – in English, ‘the Victims’ – has at its focal point the human condition, sweeping sentimentality and extreme suffering. One cannot help but to be moved by such extremities of emotion, if presented correctly. Luckily for the film, the cast pulls off the plot. The film is a particular tearjerker due to the very fact that the casting was – on the whole – done brilliantly and the live action singing gives a sense of real-time agony.

Director Tom Hooper had already made a name for himself through the much-revered The King’s Speech. His decision that all of the songs would be recorded live, rather than lip sung during filming and added in post-production, made the songs – which comprise an overwhelming majority of the film (indeed, I cannot remember a single piece of dialogue in it) – chillingly emotional, touchingly realistic performances.

This immediacy allows the ballads to stick with the audience as they retain the same exhilaration of the stage. The film improves on the stage as the camera provides close-ups of the cast’s faces – something one has to imagine on the faces of Broadway actors.
Perhaps the most touching example is that of ‘I dreamed a Dream’, sung by Anne Hathaway’s character, Fantine.  The paean of loss is delivered entirely as a tight shot of Hathaway’s face. For several minutes, we see in every quiver of her mouth; every flash of her eyes; every tear. As the words are sung, spat and wept from her, the despair, humiliation and fury are truly felt by the audience. Many will be blown away by the performance, as she makes us believe that ‘life has killed the dream [she] dream[s].’

Similarly, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean was another great selection. Director Hooper commented that, ‘Hugh has a kind of innate grace and spirit as a human being and a great kind of moral compass and gentleness that is perfectly suited for this man going on this spiritual journey.’ Jackman’s rougher performance allows the film to be carried beyond its saccharine lyrics. His quiet despair in ‘Who am I?’ is delivered half-spoken-half-sung, producing a believable, moving façade, allowing us to empathise with the tortured soul contemplating his human condition, loss of humanity and quest for salvation.

Most of the cast has a musical theatre background, but some voices did stand out as weaker. In bitter juxtaposition to the voices of Hathaway and Jackman, Russell Crowe (Javert) has one of the weaker singing voices in the film. Adam Lambert commented that ‘the score suffered massively with great actors pretending to be singers.’ While I disagree that the film ‘suffered massively’, Crowe was the wrong actor for Javert. He acts the inflexible, duty-driven Inspector well, but the role requires a deep, commanding and talented singing voice – something Crowe cannot quite muster.

Time must also be given to honour the light-hearted, camp and funny moments in the film. Sacha Baron Cohen (Thenardier) and Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thenardier) allow space for the audience to take a break, enjoy the comedy and reach for a new tissue. Although relatively derivative in their enactment of ‘Master of the House’, the audience will roar with laughter at the comic relief of one of the most memorable pieces of the film.

This is a heart-wrenching epic saga. Bringing very little new to the already near-perfected plot, it delivers it well in a new medium, which allows for closer empathy with the characters. Like its characters, the film is ragged around the edges, but this does not detract from its quality. The overwhelming emotion and power gives the film an epic feeling. Bring your tissues if you’re prone to crying, and prepared to be moved by the heart-breaking performances by the cast of Les Misérables.

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