Film review: Les Miserables

It was 41°C in Melbourne today.  At 9pm, it’s still 38.2°C, which is just unpleasant and un-called for.  But I’m on holiday, and finally neither exhausted nor in pain, and couldn’t bear to spend another day trapped inside the house.

Cinemas, however, have air-conditioning.  As do shopping centres.  Cinemas inside shopping centres are particularly useful, because they have air-conditioning, movies, and places to buy stuff for dinner afterwards (not to mention the 2013 calendar one had not yet got around to purchasing).  So I decided to go and see Les Miserables.
I saw first saw Les Miserables when I was 13 or so and I immediately imprinted on it.  I learned all the songs.  I then went and found the book and read it in two separate translations, before going and seeing the French version of the musical when I was 15.  Then I learned all the songs in French.  And then I got the sheet music and learned how to play the songs.  I eventually tried to read the book in French, but got stuck in that long digression about Napoleon and never managed to finish it.  It was hard enough to get through in English.  But this didn’t stop me improving my French with nightly imagined conversations in French with various characters in the novel (as French conversation practice goes, imaginary people leave something to be desired, but there were definitely occasions when I had to get up and find a dictionary to look up a word or expression I wasn’t sure about, so yes, my French probably did benefit from all this.).  Especially Enjolras.  I had such a crush on Enjolras.  And I empathised so much with Eponine.  The objects of my desire were always so unattainable, as were Cosette’s high notes.  Eponine was clearly the character for me…

All of this meant that I have… opinions… about Les Miserables.  Lots of opinions.  Which made going to see the film version a bit of a risk, frankly.

It also means that I can’t quite decide what I think of the film.  Parts of it were excellent.  The look of it, the acting, the faithfulness to the original stage musical, were all great.  The singing was far better than I had feared – and in some cases, it was really good.  Samantha Barks, who played Eponine, was fantastic, and Anne Hathaway was also really good.  Indeed, the women as a whole all did well.  But still… it’s a musical, and a musical with a strong tendency to opera, at that.  And when one goes to see an opera, there is a certain contract between singers and audience that allows one to believe that it is entirely natural and normal for feelings and interactions to be expressed in song.  And it’s really hard for the audience – or at least for me – to believe this when singing is clearly not something that comes naturally to the actors.

(Actually, the singing was really interesting to me on a lot of levels.  I find it incredibly strange to hear a performance in which the chorus and minor roles have really strong, well-trained voices, while the major roles are played by actors who happen to be able to sing.  You could tell who had been cast for their voices and who had been cast for their acting, and I kept getting distracted by random chorus members with lovely voices and little to do with the plot…)

This was particularly evident in the case of Russell Crowe – who I actually liked far more than I expected to, incidentally. Crowe has, as it happens, rather a lovely voice, and he can sing in tune and manage all of Javert’s role, which is a large and not particularly easy one.  But he doesn’t, I think, know how to use his singing voice expressively, which is odd, because he certainly knows how to use his speaking voice.  He tended to sing better in sections where he was interacting with others, I thought.  I’d quite like to see him develop his voice more and see what he could do with it, actually.  Of course, Javert has been a favourite character of mine for many years, so Crowe had a lot to live up to.

Hugh Jackman, who played Valjean, also has a good voice, and, frankly, a difficult role, vocally-speaking.  Like Crowe, he had a good voice, and acted well, but didn’t initially manage to convince me that singing one’s conversations was normal, though he did get there in the end.  I do think, though, that if you are going to cast your lead characters for their acting rather than their singing, you should not write whole extra songs for them, which I’m pretty sure they did with that song of Valjean’s when he is in the carriage with baby!Cosette.  Nobody benefits from this.  Especially when it’s a silly, annoying song in the first place.  (And why did they have to keep shortening all the songs that get sung by people who have real singing voices?  Also, if there is one thing this film taught me, it’s that recitative is best left to the professionals.  None of the actors managed recit very well.)

(Also, I don’t think whoever the voice coach was for this film was doing the actors any favours – they were clearly encouraged to sing as if they were speaking, which is not a good style for a lot of this music, and often meant that their voices sounded weaker and more clipped than they should have.  In the sections where they had high notes and *had* to let loose and sing properly, they all did much better, which suggests to me that it was training rather than ability that was the problem.)

(also, I have opinions)

I loved the students, who were all clearly cast primarily for their voices (and probably their looks), so all their numbers were excellent.  Apparently, I will always love the students, even though it was Grantaire I was crushing on this time rather than Enjolras (not that Enjolras wasn’t good, but Grantaire really was rather gorgeous, and apparently I have reached an age where a certain wry cheekiness is more appealing than utter earnest idealism).  I did like the way the film-makers went out of their way to make sure the final sight of Enjolras involved him dangling from one ankle, arms out-flung, with red flag artistically draped, just as it always was in the stage production, and despite the fact that this took a fair bit of effort to make happen with the staging at hand!  And I loved the way they chose to start the ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ song at the funeral procession for Lamarque, quietly and angrily and a capella.  Very effective, I thought.

And yeah, Samantha Barks had a really wonderful voice and an interesting face, and I enjoyed her Eponine immensely.  Anne Hathaway was also impressive, and Marius managed not to make me want to slap him, which is highly unusual.  I could actually see him and Cosette being happy together, which I never could after I read the book.  And Helena Bonham-Carter as Mme Thenardier was absolutely brilliant, and played the character for just the right amount of black comedy (Ali-G as M. Thenardier carried it a little too far, I thought).  Actually, I noticed that the film in general tried to lighten things a bit – making Marius more likeable, cutting the women’s song about ‘nothing changes, nothing ever will’, and generally trying to make us feel more hopeful, even if all the characters were dying off at a rate of knots.  And it was a nice touch giving the part of the Bishop to Colm Wilkinson, the original Valjean in the stage production.

Altogether?  For all my complaining about the singing, it was a good film.  It made me cry, just as it should, at the wasted lives, at the inflexibility of will and of law that kills Javert and, perhaps, Enjolras and the students (I wonder if they decided to fight on when it was hopeless because stopping and being arrested would have put them in Valjean’s initial position – prisoners and then parolees with no chance of ever being able to find honest work under their own names?), and the inflexibility of society that kills Fantine and separates Cosette and Valjean.  Most importantly, the directors understood that this film is about Javert and Valjean and what is between them (incidentally, if you value your sanity, do not look up Javert / Valjean slash), and not about the Marius/Cosette romance, or even about the failed revolution, and they kept that relationship central, as it deserved to be.

And hey, turns out that Russell Crowe can sing.  Who knew?

ETA: And I just remembered the one thing I did find utterly and excessively infuriating – Gavroche!  Which I realise is how he is supposed to be, but Javert pinning his medal on Gavroche’s chest was the outside of enough and totally out of character. Grr.

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