Hugh Jackman – the only reason to endure Les Misérables

Les Misérables (12A) **

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen,

Directed by Tom Hooper
Running time: 158 minutes

In Nineteenth Century France, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), cruelly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks his parole and is chased relentlessly over several decades by the ruthless officer of the law, Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean helps the unfortunate Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and promises to look after her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as France’s turbulent history unfolds around them in this film version of a musical version of Victor Hugo’s great novel.

They said:

‘Fans of the original production, no doubt, will eat the movie up, and good luck to them. I screamed a scream as time went by.’  New Yorker

‘By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.’  New York Times

‘Hugely enjoyable, powerfully emotional musical with superb songs, stunning set design and a series of brilliant performances from a note-perfect cast.’ ViewLondon

‘C’est magnifique.’  Daily Express

Wolfie says:

Well it all depends on how much singing you can take and if you don’t mind it being a bit ropey at times or truly awful at others. If you’re a Les Mis fanatic then nothing will stop your enjoyment because all the songs are there and the story is everything you expect from it,  passionate, a bit churchey, sentimental, weepy, melodramatic with emotions milked to the final reprise of “that” tune you know, the one that they never stop repeating.

If you loved the stage show for its undoubted theatricality then you won’t find much of that here. Tom Hooper, who directed The King’s Speech in his usual workmanly and rather dull way, does the same sort of job here. Never really giving us a memorable cinematic image but never being afraid of big crowd scenes and spectacular settings either. He pans and zooms around his Parisian street scenes like many a director who stumbles trying to turn what is pure theatre into that weirdly unsatisfactory thing the film adaptation. It is bad enough with the, er, straight theatre but, but when it’s a musical then Mr Hooper’s lack of cinematic imagination brings the whole thing a-tumbling down. This is realism gone cookie. If people sang like this in the “real life” that Mr Hooper tries to show then we would edge away from them at the bus stop. It works on the stage but just looks daft on the big screen.

Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean)

I might have forgiven a lot more if the main actors had all been better singers. I don’t mean that they had to have perfect voices, and they certainly don’t, but they needed to have an instinct for putting over a song with the passion that works on the stage but that can be be honed down to work in a big screen close up. Hugh Jackman actually makes a pretty good stab at it as does the lovely Samantha Barks as Éponine the girl who really should have got the juve lead, the earnestly freckly Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius, the rich kid revolutionary with a conscience who can also certainly hold a tune.

Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Éponine)

 When any of these three were singing then you could see why the stage show has been such a hit worldwide. Sadly there is not enough of that in this very long and long-seeming film. Anne Hathaway (Fontine) sings her heart and guts out in the hit song about having that dream (remember it now?)  but away from the stage up there with the camera down her throat, she manages to look and sound simply deranged.

Anne Hathaway (Fontine)

Amanda Seyfried looks pretty enough as the rather twee Cosette but her singing voice is squeaky clean in all the wrong ways.

Amanda Seyfried (Cosette)

Russell Crowe looks embarrassed from the beginning as well he might. He can’t sing and, as the film progressed, I began to wonder if he could act either. He often looked like a stage-frightened school kid auditioning for a part he hoped he wasn’t going to get – he shouldn’t have been given it. He was often singing high up above his limited range on precarious walls looking as if he wanted to jump at the first opportunity just to end his and our pain. I wish he had.

Russell Crowe (Javert)

In a tiny part early on in the film the excellent Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop taught us all how this music should be sung. Wilkinson, of course, was a great Jean Valjean in the theatre – maybe the greatest. Once I had heard his very individual voice, the others singers were doomed to my ears.

Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen with Isabelle Allen (young Cosette)

If you liked the film version of “Oliver” (I hated it), you will love the jolly tavern scenes where Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter camp it up as low-life innkeepers and give it their considerable all in music that outlives it welcome the first time it comes round but keeps on coming just the same. Even Tom Hooper’s leaden powers of invention perked up during the couples’ improbable pick-pocketing scene

Student warriors

The barricades scenes just never came alive because with actuality sounds muted under the musical soundtrack, just a few horse and gun effects came through and the excitement just didn’t happen.  The young revolutionaries didn’t help by looking like middle class undergraduates in a student production.

If you love Les Mis, as I said earlier, go to see it but Hugh Jackman is, in truth, the only real reason to go. He would be terrific in this role on stage. Then again, if you really want to experience this tragic and inspiring tale about the hopes and disappointments in the making of modern France, read Victor Hugo’s novel.

4 Comments
  1. I have seen the stage version and endlessly play the DVD of the 25th anniversary concert version. I have learned some of the solo songs with my own singing teachers and taught some of the songs, over a number of years,to junior choirs. The DVD of the 25th anniversary show gives a performance where, in the absence of much action, the music is paramount and the standards of music attained in that are polished and superb. I also saw the film yesterday at Brighton Marina where the auditorium was packed to capacity. Here we had a version which is essentially theatre with music thrown in; a contrasting take on the work. the actor playing Marius, who looked too old for the part, was a scholar at Eton and choral scholar at Cambridge so he should have been able to sing well, as, with the exception of "Empty chairs" he did. At least Gareth Gstes and Nick Jonas, awful though they were as singers and actors, looked the right age. With live takes of the singers singing to camera, rather than miming as is usual in such films, the singing was never going to be perfect. "I dreamed a dream" was different from any other performance of it that I've heard but I found it intensely moving and passionate in a way that other peformances don't. It was fun spotting the locations. I went, expecting to hate it because I love the other versions so much. I came away having seen the most beautiful, emotional and moving film of any genre that I have ever seen. Perhaps wolves don't have hearts and emotions like humans? It was absolutely wonderful.

  2. There was a rumour of a version of this some years ago with Alan Parker down to direct and Judi Dench to play Mme Thenardier. I'm still not sure it would have got me into the cinema. A friend described it to me as "too much falsetto" – and that seems to be a fair description. I want proper baritones and basses, not castrati.

    That said, things that cynically go for the heartstrings tend to get me; I would end up feeling something, but hating myself for it. When I saw ROH's 'La Boheme' at the cinema, that was a real heartstring-puller, but I don't mind it when Puccini does it.

  3. I don't mind it at all when Puccini jerks my tears or pulls my heart-strings but then he was a lot better at it than these guys. There are a couple of good songs in Les Mis though and done well, they actually pull at that bit of meat in my chest called a heart, believe it or not!

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