Monday, 21 January 2013

Musical Theatre Stars at Centre of Stunning Les Miserables

It is a matter of probability bordering on certitude that anyone who read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – all 1,200 pages of it – before the mid 1980s will have been incredulous had anyone suggested to them that the most successful, and arguably the best, musical of all time would have been made from it.

Having seen the stage version twice in the West End – once in 1990 and again last summer, when the improvement in staging and performance was palpable – I was put off from going to see the film version by having heard Russell Crowe’s attempt at singing “Stars”, my favourite song from the show. However, I was persuaded into going along to see it yesterday by a combination of my daughter, who had just seen it in England, and my wife, who had had her interest in it piqued by YouTube interviews with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. I am most grateful for the pressure they brought to bear, as this is quite simply one of the best films I have seen in a long time and a tour de force for all concerned.

While a stage version of a Dickens’ book such as Oliver Twist must necessarily be either comical, lightweight or grotesque, on account of the fact that Dickens populated his novels with caricatures – evanescent creations incapable of being sustained for two and a half hours – what the creators saw in Hugo’s rambling book (for all its digressions on the Battle of Waterloo, the convent system and Parisian sewers) was a story that conformed almost exactly to Chesterton’s definition of the novel as a study of the difference between human beings. At the heart of the book – and even more so, of the musical versions of it – we have the difference between Valjean and Javert, between mercy and judgment, between redemption and spite, above all between humanity and inhumanity.      

Hitchcock once said that it is nigh on impossible to make a successful film version of a book, as so much has to be left out. (The Soviet production of War and Peace, which was made for patriotic purposes on an almost limitless budget in the 1960s and comes in at over seven hours, is an exception that proves the rule.) By the same token, the creators of Les Mis seemed to instinctively understand that if you take a genre, such as musical theatre, which requires that much has to be left out, you can, especially in a big screen version with a first-rate editor, create something that stands almost as a parable. The timelessness of this parable is attested to by the crowds that have flocked to see Les Mis across the globe. (Anyone who doubts the power and the relevance of Les Mis only has to go and see The Phantom of the Opera, a lightweight work by a lightweight French author.)    

Besides Crowe, there are very few weaknesses in the film, and it should be said in the New Zealander’s defence that his acting is of the highest order. The weakest scene in the film is the one where the director Tom Hooper gives into the cloying sentimentality that he manages to avoid so markedly in the rest of the work. Having Javert pin his medal on the coat of the fallen street urchin Gavroche before he moves off to kill himself is a misguided attempt to indicate a Damascene moment of enlightenment. Even if he has undergone a change of character, a repentance – and it is by no means clear to me that this is why he decides to end it all (perhaps he just wants to live without the constant agony of his self-consuming hatred) – surely that change would be best represented not by an overt and showy action but by, say, a bow of the head, or even a Lennonesque throwing away of his medal before he takes his final plunge?

Another query for me was the handling of the caricature characters, the Thénadiers. (They are hardly caricatures in Hugo’s book, it should be said – they are in their own way as evil as Javert.) While the director downplays almost to non-existence the anodyne song “Castle on a cloud” sung by the film’s most annoying character, Cosette, he decides to give the rapid cut treatment to the great comic song “Master of the house”. While the purpose is to show what thieving bastards the dastardly innkeeping pair are, this was the one part of the film where I longed for the stage presentation. For there, the dynamics of performance and the sheer distances from the gods to the stage demand that each act of larceny is exaggerated and allowed to have its full comic effect. Doing it manically with super-short takes detracts from rather than adds to Sacha Baron Cohen and Helene Bonham Carter’s rendition, which is strong enough not to require such tricksy treatment.        

As the central player in the drama, Hugh Jackman turns in a performance worthy of Oscar consideration. At times, he overeggs the vocal omelette a little (he is an extremely gifted singer, but given to more vibrato than the oeuvre demands), but even as he turns from Catweazle to someone who in turns reminds me of Kevin Keegan and Dudley Moore (with a little Lawrie McMenemy thrown in) he remains in total control of his character and carries the film.

Of the rest, Anne Hathaway vies with the Australian for Best Voice in a Hollywood Star, but it is the musical theatre graduates who are for me the brightest stars of this production. Samantha Barks (Éponine) may have the meatiest role among the supporting cast and arguably the best song (“On my own”) but she is just shaded for me by Eddie Redmayne, who sets Marius free, hopefully for good, from his Time Nice But Dim persona into someone you really care about, even if his cheeks and upper lip appear to be filled with the cotton wool that Harry Enfield rejected.

His a capella performance of “Empty chairs at empty tables” is the highlight of the show and helps sustain the film right to the very end, something which the multi-Oscar winning Sound of Music was unable to do, as it lost itself in a Salzburg made soggy as much by its sentimentality as the melting Alpine snows.              


Foamier said...

I watched the West End show and found it dragged on about twice as long as it should have done. If only Victor had kept to 600 pages.

ulaca said...

Yes, the director chops out a lot of the boring barricades stuff (and silly student banter), as well as several of the less stellar songs, such as "Dog eats dog" and "I saw him once". The Editor deserves an Oscar.