Tom Hooper | 158 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13
27 years after its West End debut, the long-running smash-hit musical finally makes the leap to the big screen. Such a beloved work paired with a recently Oscar-winning director and an all-star cast was pretty much a dead cert for big-name awards nominations, and so it was to be; but critical reaction was more mixed: I’ve seen people who love the film unreservedly, and others who despise it with a passion.
Let’s begin with the obvious: Les Mis* is a two-hour-forty-minute musical — some people are never going to be on board with that. “Why are they siiingiiiiing?!”, etc. Such complaints must be ignored. After that, more valid complaints do arise: the quality of said singing; the necessity of such length; whether said Oscar winning director is overrated and should he have won the Oscar in the first place; and so forth.
Les Mis is an epic tale: it spans decades, albeit in three distinct chunks. It begins when Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), freed from years of hard labour as punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks his parole and disappears. Years later, we find him a wealthy man, manager of his own company and the mayor or something to boot. But his former prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), finds him too — oh no! Indebted to a young woman he wronged (Anne Hathaway), Valjean takes her child for a better life in Paris, where, more years later, they end up embroiled in one of the capital’s failed revolutions.
Despite its running time, Les Mis is quite brisk for much of that plot (which, sorry if you’ve never seen it, I have described a fair old chunk of). There’s no interval in the film, but on stage it doesn’t come until well into the Paris section of the tale. Such a break must help the pacing, because while I remember enjoying it all on stage (where, I might add, it’s even longer), on screen I felt the middle portion began to drag. So yes, an epic running time for an epic, but it actually moves quickly through the parts that make it an epic before slowing for a bit of a forced romance and that kind of palaver.
I noted that it’s longer on stage, which is because here some songs have been trimmed. That’s partly for time, partly for re-staging (is it “hot as hell” in a spray-drenched dock pulling in wrecked galleons? No, apparently not), and partly to squeeze in a new song so it could get an Oscar nod. That’s Suddenly, which did get its awards nom but of course lost to Skyfall. It doesn’t fit too badly into the film, as it turns out, but in and of itself is a bit insipid. How much other trims bother you will depend on whether you’re a fan or not, of course. Some of the very best numbers are left to play in full, while tonally-awkward reprises (a comedy song after the climactic massacre) are cut back to literally a couple of lines.
Much talk around Les Mis focused on the performances, with three in particular attracting discussion. As honourable wronged-man Valjean, Jackman is the star of the show, and brings his musical theatre background to bear on a clearly-sung but emotive performance. He was unlucky to be in the same awards year as Daniel Day-Lewis’ all-conquering turn in Lincoln, because otherwise those gongs might well have been his. Opposite him in the film’s central rivalry is driven letter-of-the-law lawman Javert, divisively sung by Crowe. I think the best criticism I read was that his vocal style seems at odds with the rest of the cast — whereas they’re musical theatre, he’s got a gruffer, perhaps rockier, tone. I didn’t think he was all that bad, a few moments aside, which I suppose is the advantage of hearing so much negativity in advance.
And then there’s Anne Hathaway, as much of a sure thing during awards season as Day-Lewis. To be honest, I think Jackman comes out of the film better. I can never quite escape Hathaway’s earnestness; a sense of, “look, I’m singing! And isn’t this role important and meaningful!” Her delivery of I Dreamed a Dream, so over-used in the film’s trailers, is pretty flawless, realised (if I remember rightly, which I might not) in a single shot, a soul-crushing close-up on her face. Otherwise, while she’s good really, I felt she’d stolen some of the attention that should be on Jackman.
The rest of the cast is an assortment from the can-sing (Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried) to the comedic-so-it-doesn’t-matter (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). The best voice of the lot belongs to Samantha Barks as Eponine. No surprise, really, as she was poached from the West End… where she’d found herself via one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s BBC talent shows, so I imagine he feels thoroughly vindicated now (as if he didn’t before).
Famously, they’re all singing live. As a viewer, this is more appreciable as a technical accomplishment than something that makes any difference to what we see on screen. It brings some extra emotion (read: odd breathing points and half-achieved notes) at times, and a knowledge of authenticity always has a way of adding authenticity, but otherwise…
There was much surprise when Tom Hooper wasn’t rewarded with a Best Director nomination at the Oscars — much of it originating from within the Les Mis camp, I felt, whereas no one else was particularly fussed. Hooper has improved a bit as a director (finally, close-ups are framed properly!) but, to be honest, I don’t particularly rate him on the whole. For every good decision (going for a grimy real-world style rather than something typically musical-y) there’s an awkward one (the decision to represent Paris almost entirely with one slightly-stagey set). For every well-staged song (realising Lovely Ladies as a montage to show Fantine’s fall over time) there’s one that’s lacking (we don’t see any empty chairs at empty tables until the song’s half over). Hooper does an above-average job on the whole, but the lack of awards nods shouldn’t be so surprising.
After so long on the stage, a film adaptation can feel redundant or insufferably inferior. Despite the negative reaction from some quarters, I think it’s fair to say the team behind Les Mis have managed to render something that is neither of those, even if I had a nagging feeling it could’ve been even better still.
* Why Americans insist on using a ‘zee’ there I don’t know — do they think it says “miss”? How do they say the word “miss”? “Misssss”? Anyway: ^