Thursday, 14 March 2013

Occupy – The Musical! - Les Misérables

Les Misérables

Occupy – The Musical!

After wowing global audiences for close to three decades, the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic tale of crime, punishment, revolution and redemption finally makes the jump from stage to screen. 

Spanning the period from 1815 to 1832’s anti-Orléanist June Rebellion, Les Misérables is the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), an ex-convict at war with the world after spending 19 years in prison (for stealing a loaf of bread!) who, after an act of kindness, resolves to redeem himself by becoming a better man.  He reinvents himself, assuming a new identity and becoming a successful factory owner, pillar of the community and mayor of a small provincial town.  In doing so however, he breaks his parole, earning the implacable enmity of dogged policeman Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who swears to bring him to justice.

When his actions inadvertently result in the ruin of factory worker Fantine (Anne Hathaway), Valjean pledges to care for the dying woman’s young daughter, bringing the child up as his own.  As Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) grows to adulthood she falls in love with idealistic young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne).  But as Paris spirals into revolt and Marius takes to the barricades to protest against the injustice and poverty that permeates French society, Valjean and Javert find their paths finally crossing…

If the thought of Wolverine, Catwoman, Gladiator, Borat and Bellatrix Lestrange teaming up to sing Susan Boyle‘s back catalogue makes you want to scream a scream rather than dream a dream you’re probably a smug, jaded, cynical, sarcastic film snob who’s going into the movie having already decided your position on Tom Hooper’s big screen adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s Victor Hugo-based musical juggernaut, Les Misérables.  You’ve probably already thought up all the nasty comments you’ll use (like that “scream a scream” quip) as you pick holes in the film.  And there are holes to pick.  Plenty of ‘em.  Not least of which is the casting of a velociraptor (Eddie Redmayne) as the young romantic lead.  But Hooper’s done the one thing no other filmmaker (Alan Parker and Bruce Beresford among them) has managed to do in the 28 years that the show has conquered theatre stages on both sides of the Atlantic; he’s breathed vital, cinematic life into the box office behemoth and dragged it kicking and screaming onto the silver screen where it irrefutably belongs.

With its toothless, syphilitic whores, filthy beggars and unromanticised poverty the film is perhaps grittier than most audience members will be prepared for, particularly in Valjean and Marius’ escape through the rivers of excrement that are the Parisian sewers.  Hooper doesn’t stint on the filth and squalor but what’s most surprising and satisfying about his vision of Les Misérables is just how intimate he’s made Hugo’s epic tale of love, honour, justice, faith, tragedy and redemption.  While there are a few big money shots (an opening where Jackman’s Valjean and his fellow convicts toil in a very wet dry dock as Crowe’s Javert keeps a watchful eye on them, Javert prowling the night-time Parisian rooftops like a 19th century Dark Knight) and some ropey-looking CGI, Hooper wisely plays to his well-honed TV strengths, choosing to shoot much of the film in close-up, often using multiple cameras, allowing the actors to sing live on-set, giving their performances a rawness, an urgency and truth absent from the perfect post-synched sound and multiple takes of most filmed musicals. 

Seasoned song-and-dance man Jackman dominates the film as the haunted, passionate Valjean, finding redemption through selfless love, while Crowe is the best he’s been in years.  Long derided for his singing pretensions, Crowe’s gruff delivery ideally suits Javert and his voice is at least David Essex good.  Redmayne, one of those saurian posh-boy actors indistinguishable from one another (be honest can you tell the difference between Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston and Laurence Fox?  They’re like a thespian hydra) and Amanda Seyfried are blandly boring as drippy young lovers Marius and Cosette, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide broad comic relief as panto villains the Thénardiers. 

In what amounts to little more than 15 or 20 minutes of screen-time, Anne Hathaway’s tragic Fantine haunts the film.  In what could almost be a metaphor for life under the Con-Dems, she loses her job, is forced to sell her hair, her teeth and her body, finding herself being pumped in a coffin by a sailor before contracting consumption (or some other 19th century disease) and dying.  Hathaway is simply brilliant and her astonishing one-take rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is an angry, melancholic heartbreaking lament of defeat and desperation that’s sure to see her gracing this year’s awards ceremonies. But perhaps the best thing about the film is former reality show contestant Samantha Barks (who came third on the BBC’s I’d Do Anything.  Third!) as Éponine whose desperate, unrequited love for Marius leads to her death.  Barks is phenomenal, bagging the musical’s other big song (On My Own) and giving a quietly devastating performance.

Whether you like musicals or not is immaterial; Les Misérables simply doesn’t care!  It’s an emotional sucker punch that’ll leave you reeling.

David Watson

Directed by:
Written by:
Produced by:
Drama, Musical
2 hours 37 minutes
UK Cinema Release Date:
Friday 11th January 2013

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