Monday, 14 January 2013

Les Miserables - The Film (a review)

Let me say at the very outset that this is a really great film – a must see. There, that’s that. You now know where I’m coming from. Of course, that’s only my personal view and I urge you to go and see it for yourself, if you do nothing else this month. If you miss it at the cinema, get the DVD. And if there’s anything you should do before you die you must see this wonderful story at the theatre. I’ve seen the musical theatre version a number of times and I’ve loved it every time. Its impact on the audience never fails to amaze me: tears, sobs, laughter, stunned silence, thunderous applause and eager chatter in the bar afterwards. If you ask another theatre-goer if this is their first time the answer is usually no.

I must admit that I was a little sceptical about seeing the film version of Les Miserables. I was worried that it would not do it justice. After all it has been in packed theatres for over twenty-five years and is currently stronger than ever. Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) means X-Men to me. Russell Crow (Javert) means Gladiator. Great actors, megastars, household names. But Les Miserables? Would it work? I went to see the film at the iMAX cinema in Manchester. My only previous visit to an iMAX cinema was to see The Lion King years ago and I had forgotten just how big the screen actually is. It turned out to be a great choice this time. The film employs many, many close-ups of the actors’ faces, uncomfortably close at first on the giant screen; you could see every pore, every line, and every bead of sweat. Although you soon get used to this I did find myself wishing for some relief part way through a song; hoping the camera would pull away and I would see some movement. I sometimes felt claustrophobic, but only for brief moments. The camera work is supreme and sometimes takes you on a roller-coaster ride through ship’s rigging, gloomy streets, dazzling roof-tops and sweeping countryside; I had the urge to hang onto my seat at times (thanks iMAX). As a viewing experience this film is a standout success. It doesn’t come much better than this.

Should I have been worried about whether a film version would do this amazing story justice? Well. The answer is both yes and no as there is a fly in an otherwise satisfying and potent ointment. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is sublime. He threw everything into this role and Valjean’s damascene conversion to a better life early on in the film was spellbinding. It moved me. I didn’t want to blink and risk missing some look or gesture during Jackman’s brutal and believable emergence from crushing defeat to hopeful quest in a moment of pure emotional and spiritual pain. I wanted to applaud there and then, a few minutes into the film. But hey, I’m English and we just don’t do that do we? Jackman sustained his intensity throughout the film and his portrayal of Jean Valjean was more than I could ever have hoped for. Bravo! Top marks too for Anne Hathaway and her Fantine, giving me the second and probably the most moving experience of the film with her ‘I dreamed a dream’. Her total commitment to the part is without parallel, having almost starved herself stick-thin for this moment of brilliance. She looked emaciated and gaunt and completed the scene in a single take by all accounts. This was not sugar-coated, easy viewing. It was totally absorbing and intense with a disturbing reality. Bravo number two.

And now to that fly in the ointment in the form of Russell Crow and his Inspector Javert. Don’t get me wrong, I like Crow, especially with a sword in his hand, which he wielded with great skill when required – that’s what he’s good at. But what he clearly cannot do is sing. He certainly can’t sing and act at the same time. His screen presence is second to none especially when in full period costume. Perfect! But I had wanted and expected a lot more from him and didn’t get it. Every Javert I’ve seen in the Theatre has thundered out the words, spitting them in my face, hurling each syllable directly at my heart. Crow was weak. Sure, he can sing the notes in tune, mostly, but his voice lacked strength and he was unable to play with the score in order to make it his own. This was singing by numbers. And the effort he put into trying to do his best detracted from his acting, making him stiff and wooden. It’s a shame. On the way home from the cinema I wracked my brain to think of an actor who could have taken his place but could not think of one. Maybe that was the problem faced when casting took place. They went for the big name, the big screen presence. But this is a musical and they made a mistake.

My only other complaint, and I’m probably nit-picking here about a fantastic film experience, was the Thenardier partnership of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. If I had not seen many theatre performances in the past I would have been completely satisfied with their take on these lovable rogues. Their partnership worked well but I would have liked to see Bonham Carter make more of the ‘living with this bastard in the house’ line. It could have been so much funnier but it was a very good performance with Bonham Carter virtually playing herself! She was cast perfectly.

There’s no doubt that I will see this again, at least once, before it leaves the cinema. It’s that good. And I will await the DVD with eager anticipation. This is a must have for any fan of Les Miserables. As the screen went black at the end of the film the cinema audience clapped, pretty feebly I have to say, but that was because we are English, remember? But they clapped nonetheless. I’ve only ever seen that happen in American cinema. Bravo number three!

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