Ever since they cracked the technology that allowed moving pictures to have sound, movie musicals have proven to be an incredibly popular and indelible part of our cultural landscape. From Singin’ in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz to West Side Story and Cabaret, some of the most beloved films of all time have been of the all-singing, all-dancing variety. Who doesn’t know what happens when you’re a Jet? Or can recite a number of Julie Andrews’ favourite things? The movie musical may be very much past its heyday but they can still have the power to strike a chord with audiences and critics alike: as recent as 2003, Rob Marshall’s film version of Chicago took home the Oscar for best film.
But in the past ten years or so, traditional film musicals have become deeply uncool. There seems to a great trend for demanding ‘realism’ in mainstream films that even Batman has to be ‘realistic’ these days. And he’s a man who dresses like a bat! If comic book movies aren’t allowed to break the rules of reality, then there’s little place left for characters who stop in the streets and sing about their aspirations. Things like Glee and Pitch Perfect have found a loophole of sorts, giving the characters a real-life pretense under which they might be singing. So, if anything: this would seem like the wrong cinematic climate in which to release Les Misérables.
It might be adapted from most successful stage show of all-time but the decision to keep Les Miz as a sung-through musical is a pretty bold move. By ‘sung-through’ we mean that the characters don’t break into song in so much as they never break out of song. And honestly, for the first 10 minutes the effect is quite jarring, like watching someone try to make up a song on the spot. But once the story settles it, we found ourselves adjusting to the operatic style of dialogue.
In the opening scene, we are introduced to convict Jean Valjean, (Hugh Jackman) who was sentenced to 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. His unrelenting Prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe) is on hand at his parole to give him an extra dose of ball-busting.
The film’s strengths and weaknesses can be detected in this very scene. Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) shoots with both loose and fluid camera movements that –combined with the enormous dry dock setting– shows that he’s looking to craft an epic. The picture looks absolutely beautiful, of course. There has never been a more stunningly-rendered version of post-revolutionary France. Unfortunately, there’s something not quite right with the way the movie sounds.
Much has also been made over Hooper’s decision to film the actors’ vocal performances on set: while most movie musicals see the actors miming along to pre-recorded playback tracks, Jackman and co performed their numbers live, allowing them a lot more freedom to change their vocal phrasing on the spot.
This process quickly proves to be a double-edged sword. It allows for moments of incredible emotion such as when the tragic factory worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) sings ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ in a single gut-wrenching close-up, momentarily wiping away all memories of Susan Boyle. (Here’s an obvious prediction: Hathaway will be nominated for an Oscar this week and that scene will be the clip they play at the ceremony.) But on other occasions, the actors’ ability to interpret the songs on a whim results in a handful of numbers that are quite flat. For example, every single one that Russell Crowe appears in. Although he’s a self-ascribed singer-songwriter, Crowe’s voice proves too thin and his timing is odd as he struggles to carry Javert’s key numbers. In addition, he delivers perhaps the hammiest performance of his career. In the clip above, he acts as though he’s doing Panto instead of starring in a BAFTA-nominated film.
The real problem is a thick vein of inconsistency that runs through the film: Hathaway bares herself in an powerfully cinematic performance; Jackman is straddling a line between stage and screen (and elicited unintentional laughs in our screening); while Crowe appears to be singing at a Royal Albert Hall that exists only in his mind. As a pair of villainous tavern owners, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are very funny indeed, but their scenes are incredibly broad and shouldn’t be anywhere near this movie.
There is no shortage of wonderful songs and supporting turns. In particular, I’d Do Anything runner-up Samantha Barks shines as Éponine and will undoubtedly become a household name before long. The sections of the film with Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit as student revolutionaries are especially strong. But with its disparate tone and insistence on importing nearly every song from the stage version, Hooper’s picture feels every bit the 157 minute movie that it is. At somewhere near the 2 hour mark, you might find yourself wishing for an interval so you can eat a tiny pot of ice-cream and pay £7 for a glass of wine.
It’s at this point of a review where we might say that this is a movie that will only appeal to Les Miz devotees but with over 60 million tickets sold worldwide, they can probably do without any new fans. There is a lot of good stuff packed into this film, but it’s a case of the whole not matching up to the sum of its parts.