les misérables | my movie review

Posted on January 31, 2013

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Les+Mis

There are very few musicals that i could watch over and over again.
The Wizard of Oz, The Muppets, Moulin Rouge, The Lion King, Chicago, and of course the gloriously macabre Sweeny Todd. Actually there’s more than I thought, but my point is that I don’t really generally enjoy musicals. I cannot stand the old western musicals a lá Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Fiddler on the Smegging Roof! Even the Tommy Steele movies from my childhood grate on my patience when I come across them on the tv at Christmas time. I *had* to watch them then, because that was back in the day when there was a grand total of *three* channels. Oh the humanity!
Anyway, all this is leading somewhere. Musicals, yes, not my favourite genre but they have a place. Since watching Mamma Mia! with the lady wife back in 2008 [after which we both felt violated by the experience!] I have steered clear of musicals. Up until now.

I am a fan of Les Misérables the stage musical. I have seen it twice and have loved every minute of it. It’s an incredible moving experience and warrants all the praise it has been showered with. I’ve never seen a movie of the story, and there have been several non-musical versions of it. I’ve always thought that it worked on stage but couldn’t see it working as a movie.
Tom Hooper has proved that it can be done.
Tom Hooper is the man who gave us the hugely entertaining “small” movie The King’s Speech. One of the best films of 2010. How does he manage to bring Victor Hugo’s tale set at the brink of The French Revolution to the big screen? Very well indeed is the answer to that question.

The story of Les Misérables spans roughly 20 years. Jean Valjean breaks his parole and disappears after a Bishop shows him forgiveness and offers him a chance at a new life. Javert, the policeman who put him away, vows to track him down and bring him to justice. We meet Fantine, whose life rapidly spirals out of control and whose daughter, Cosette, is taken in by Valjean, in the hope that not only can he save her life – but also his own. All this happens at the dawn of the French Revolution. It’s a tremendous tale of honour, freedom and above all else… love.

I’m struggling to even think how to begin this review as there is so much to say about it.
I’ll start with the acting. Across the board it is superb, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Jackman is fantastic as Valjean, his voice is superb and his emotional weight is what ultimately holds the movie together. I’ve never seen him this good – and I thought he was wonderful in The Fountain. Crowe is completely believable as Javert. For me this is his best role since A Beautiful Mind.  He manages to convey his determination to find Valjean but also the emptiness of his life because of it. His character calls for less outward emotion but you still see it in his eyes. The consequences of his own actions are his ultimate undoing. Baron Cohen and Bonham-Carter are hilarious as the innkeeper Thénardier and his wife and add some well needed frivolity to the proceedings. Seyfried is beautiful as Cosette, and not forgetting Redmayne [Marius], Tveit [Enjolras] and Banks [Éponine] who all take centre stage – so to speak – during the final third of the movie.
Without doubt though the most moving performance is Anne Hathaway’s Fantine. After her superb turn as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises she proves here that her acting chops are well and truly developed! While only onscreen for no more than 30 minutes – she shows us just how completely she can inhabit a role. It’s an incredible piece of work, by an incredible actor.

As for the transfer of the stage setting to the cinema it works 110%. The cinematography is outstanding. The costumes and sets are incredible. The moment the camera sweeps in through the storm down to the prisoners pulling a galleon into dock you are transported to the late days of the 18th century. The grime, the poverty, the pain, the corruption – it’s all there.
From the intensely emotional personal stories of the first two acts to the broader social and political backdrop of the barricades scenes during the final third. The music is wonderful and moving – from the quiet I Dreamed a Dream to the pounding Do You Hear the People Sing.
The wonderful thing about the way Tom Hooper chose to shoot this movie is that it goes for loads of long shots and close-ups. This is obviously to make up for, and to distinguish it from, the stage play where you cannot get any of these. A stage show is all mid-shot and while that works fine for a stage production, the grandiose shots of the city landscape and the sewers are juxtaposed with the many intense close-ups of the characters singing. This is what helps the movie make far more impact on the audience than the stage play for me. The actor can be quieter, more subtle, and not have to play to an audience. The fact that they sang live for the filming meant that the tempo matched their acting rather than them having to keep tempo with the music and songs.
This interview with the cast explains this concept clearly: http://youtu.be/pOTTUaZVtJA
The actors were therefore able to add far more emotion and depth and range to their words than would be possible on a stage where you have to make sure the audience can hear you. Some of the lyrics are sung so quietly that you wonder how it ever really worked on stage.
I tried listening to the CD of the stage show a few days later. I just couldn’t bear it, I had to turn it off. The singing – which I previously felt was wonderful – lacked so much emotion after hearing it sung the way it had been in the movie. I still love the stage play, but for me the movie wins on impact – hands down.
My *only* gripe “guvna”, is that i wasn’t sure where the cockney accents came from. I remember them in the stage play too, but never thought about them there. It did initially feel as though some of the cast of Oliver! had come along for the ride, but they soon blended in. The accents aside though – the cast were all superb.

Without doubt, Les Misérables is a tremendous piece of filmmaking and all involved should be very very proud of their work. I cannot urge you enough to go see it while you can on the big screen. It’s the only movie I’ve seen where the audience broke out into spontaneous applause when it ended. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but that’s the same with any movie. I’m just worried that I may have already seen the best movie of 2013 and we haven’t even left January yet!

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