I've never been one of those diehard Les Misérables fangirls and would never put the show in my list of Top 5 Musicals. In fact I only saw it on stage for the first time when I was 23; until then my only experiences of it were snippets from Hey! Mr Producer. However, I have three different versions of the soundtrack/cast recording in my iTunes library, own both the 10th & 25th Anniversary concerts on DVD and had my tickets booked to see the new film at the IMAX well before Christmas, so I'm definitely not opposed to the longest-running show in musical theatre history.
So, what did I think? I thought it was brilliant. However, the movie is by no means flawless. So, here's my 3-point review to Les Misérables.
POINT 1: CASTING
Hugh Jackman - tick.
I have loved this man for a long time; anyone who can sing, act, have a year-round tan and still look that good at 44 gets my vote, and he won me over even more when he sang his musical opening to the Oscars in 2009. In that opening number, he sang with a young lady called...
Anne Hathaway - tick.
I unashamedly own both The Princess Diaries 1 and 2 on DVD and have always liked Hathaway. While her singing in Ella Enchanted wasn't her finest musical hour, her singing in Les Mis more than makes up for it and she is a phenomenal Fantine.
Russell Crowe - hmmm...
The brooding Aussie had me laughing for all the wrong reasons. It wasn't his acting (in fact, were Javert a non-singing part he'd have been passable for me), it was his singing. His strained, rock voice had none of the menace, fear, or oppression that a character such as Javert needs. This dude has an almighty chip on his shoulder, and I just felt like Russell was humming through the lines with irritating diction ('This I swear by the Storrrrrrrrs'), rather than really getting across the the complex character that is Javert.
Eddie Redmayne - tick.
I love Eddie Redmayne - his freckles, his quivering top lip, his crazy hair and that he can rock a velvet suit on the red carpet. That he can sing AND make me like the character of Marius (rather than compare him to the wet tissue I had in my pocket after seeing Hathaway sing I Dreamed a Dream) gives him a big tick from me. I also thought he was vocally and visually 'of the period'; too many young Mariuses sing the part too 'poppy' for my liking (think Nick Jonas in the 25th anniversary production...)
Amanda Seyfried - tick.
I don't normally like Cosette, but what I got for the first time from Seyfried's portrayal was a real understanding that Cosette is so 'precious' because she's been so protected by Valjean, not because she's pathetic. You could also see why she was irresistible to Marius; those close up exchanges between the two of them are something you don't get to see in the stage show, but on film made me buy into the love at first sight that these two experience.
Samantha Barks - tick.
I have an apology to make. When I heard that Samantha Barks had been cast as Eponine, I wasn't sure. Not that I wanted Taylor Swift or any of the other rumoured actresses to play the part, but because I thought she was too inexperienced, too 21st Century and too 'belty'. I had been on 'Team Jodie' when Sam shot to fame on I’d Do Anything and hadn't been overly impressed with her over-keen singing as Eponine in the 25th Anniversary concert (although the poor girl did have to hold up Nick Jonas... I seem to have it in for him today). However, she is assured and excellent in the film and I look forward to seeing how her career blossoms.
Helena Bonham Carter & Sacha Baron Cohen - small tick.
HBC always seems to play herself (with the exception of her fantastic Queen Mum in The King's Speech), but she does it well. SBC was the stronger of the two for me, his comic genius shining through. The Thénardiers are not nice people but they also provide comic relief to the 'glum show', so you have your work cut out to make the audience like and hate you at the same time, and these guys did it.
Company - big tick.
As a musical geek, I loved playing 'Spot the West End performer' throughout the film. Colm Wilkinson (the original Valjean, playing the Bishop in the movie), Caroline Sheen, Hannah Waddingham, Kate Fleetwood, Killian Donnelly, Gina Beck, Nancy Sullivan, Clare Foster, Gabriel Vick, even Kerry Ingram, one of the original Matildas, to name a few. It was wonderful to have so many stage performers (main cast included) in the film. I'll also mention Aaron Tveit as Enjolras. Not only is he beautiful, but that boy is fast becoming one of the biggest names on Broadway and making a real name for himself in film & TV and, like Hugh Jackman, is one of the most versatile actors out there.
POINT 2: SINGING
So, the big thing with the movie of Les Misérables is that all the singing is live. That, for me, is what makes this film stand out. Some critics and lots of stage performers have been crying out, 'But stage actors sing live in musicals eight shows a week!' and yes, they do, and it's remarkable, but that's not the point here. The point, as Eddie Redmayne sums up brilliantly in the below video, is that when singing to a playback of yourself recorded prior to filming, 'you have to make all your acting choices three months before you've even met the actor you're working with'. With live singing, the cast were allowed 'the spontaneity of normal film acting', and were thus able to make vocal choices for their character on set, in costume and in role. It's brilliant. All hail the superb musical direction and the live pianists taking the singers' lead to create this unique version of the score.
If anyone is still sceptical, let's not forget that while theatre is ephemeral, film is lasting - you've got to get the final cut right. So, that Anne Hathaway can sing I Dreamed in Dream in one close-up take and keep you engaged for the whole song is extraordinary for a piece film making, and sums up why the live singing paid off. In the same video linked above, Anne says that there seemed something 'selfish' about going for a pretty version of a song about someone who has hit rock bottom, and she couldn't be more right. The Patti LuPone way of belting this song has become overdone, and Susan Boyle didn't help matters...
Hathaway's rendition has completely sparked a love in me for one of the most over-played and sung songs in musical theatre, and a song I used to cringe at. She speaks to the melody, which is exactly how I think musical theatre should be done; you are acting through song, not just recalling words to music. She's extraordinary.
Similarly, Samantha Barks made me like On My Own for once, and largely because she didn’t sing 'On my yown' as so many Eponines seem to.
Hugh Jackman may have sounded a little too 'Colm Wilkinsony'* for me in places, but he soars through those famous melodies, delivers the sung dialogue with conviction and perfectly shows the many sides to Jean Valjean through his voice.
*Colm Wilkinson, aka the original Jean Valjean and a vocal trendsetter for many Valjeans who have followed...
POINT 3: BOOK, MUSIC & LYRICS
I'll admit that I only got to page 14 of the novel of Les Misérables when reading it at university before I gave up. However, that's more to do with my rocky relationship with reading than the source material of this show.
The musical has a weak book, in my mind. There are so many characters to keep track of and it feels like none of them are ever explored enough on stage. However, I was glad that the introduction of a Grandpa for Marius gave us more of an idea of his back story, and the extra detail to his relationship with Cosette towards the end of the film helped resolve their story a little more.
The detail missed out in theatre can be honed in on in film, and all credit to Tom Hooper's masterful direction for highlighting some of the narrative points I've always overlooked in the stage production.
There really are some harrowing and dark areas to this story: suicide, fighting on the barricade, unrequited love, theft, prostitution... not to mention the sewers; if my Dad carried the man I loved through a pile of poo to save him and 'bring him home', then I'd be incredibly honoured. I hope you’re reading this, Daddy Shields...
Les Misérables is made up of a handful of repeated musical themes. It's either cheap and easy, or genius and, given the longevity of this show on stage, I'm inclined to go with the latter.
I was interested by the additional song, Suddenly. Some say it's just there so that the film is in with a shot of winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song, while others claim it's to explore the responsibility of Valjean's new relationship with Cosette. I'm on no side in this argument, but will say that I'm not sure it added to the narrative in any way, but I'm glad the creative team chose to expand on the stage show and not just replicate the book, music and lyrics exactly as they have become identically re-packaged on stage the world over.
The geek in me also liked that the Suddenly theme was worked into some of the orchestrations; for me, the orchestrations are just as iconic as the rest of the show, so it was refreshing to see them embellished in this way.
Lyrically, I've never been too keen on Les Misérables, but since seeing the film I think it was more a case of previous casts not delivering the lyrics in a convincing enough way for me. I now 'get' I Dreamed a Dream, I feel the heart ache of On My Own, I appreciate the loss and fragility of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, and I could actually hear all of the lines in One Day More for the first time ever. So well done to Tom Hooper and the the entire music and direction department for putting together such a clear narrative and beautiful soundtrack.
Everyone has a different relationship with Les Misérables and will have different opinions on the film and its many facets, but my favourite review so far has come from my mother. She knows the novel well, but has never seen the stage show and wasn't all that familiar with the score before seeing the film earlier this week and, aside from telling me that she wanted to steal a 6ft cut-out of Hugh Jackman from the cinema foyer, she text me afterwards saying, 'Pretty amazing, isn't it?' Yes it is, Mummy Shields; so much so, I'm off to see it again tonight.