I should disclose at the outset that I’ve seen Les Mis on stage – twice. The first time was in the early 1990’s in a professional theatre in Melbourne. The second time was a more amateur, but still very good, performance here in Hobart in the mid-late 1990’s. I’m no Les Mis expert, however. Not by any means.
I’d heard mixed reviews about this film prior to seeing it and I had wondered to myself how such an established stage show would work as a film musical.
The mixed reviews all centered around the quality of the singing. The PR spinmeisters made a point of telling everyone that the singing in the film was recorded live on set. It’s not a studio performance with all of the refinements that a studio performance brings. There’s no miming here – what you see and hear is the performers doing their best at the time the film was made.
It shows, too. Take a look.
Yes, some of the singing is much thinner than what you might expect.
I have to say, however, that I was completely surprised – and riveted – by this film.
Just who is this Les fella and why’s he so miserable?
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a convict released after 19 years in prison for stealing some bread. He experiences forgiveness at the hands of a kind priest and vows to become a better man. Desperate to start a new life and not believing that he’ll get an opportunity as a former prisoner, Valjean breaks his parole and begins his new life on his own terms. He achieves success and later, as mayor of a village and a business owner, he promises the dying Fantine (Anne Hathaway) that he will care for her daughter, Cosette.
Valjean is pursued throughout the film by Javert, a policeman played by Russell Crowe. Javert is committed to finding Valjean and taking him back to prison for breaking his parole. Valjean’s redemption into respectable society cuts no slack with Javert.
The film moves through two decades in post-revolution France where there is still a great deal of instability and uprising. A grown Cosette falls in love with a revolutionary named Marius and Valjean, realising that the girl who has effectively become his daughter must leave their itinerant, escapee life and join her love. Valjean has a number of run-ins with Javert, fights with the doomed revolutionaries and assures his ward’s fate.
When I saw Les Mis on stage back in the 1990s, I took away a story of the redemption of Jean Valjean. The flexibility allowed by film, however, allowed director Tom Hooper to give each character so much more depth. This added depth opens the story up in such away that characters become so much richer. The storyline is so much more of a human story of the love between Valjean and Cosette, as well as Cosette and her hero, Marius.
It’s fair to say that the singing IS thin in places. It’s occasionally off-note. I’d heard this before seeing the film and I was prepared to go right into attack mode as I thought about having to write this review afterwards.
Whilst the singing isn’t as professional as you expect, it lends a certain realism to the film. This story is all about men and women struggling through their desperate lives – who’s got perfect pitch and rich tone in the midst of all that? The thinness of their voices actually feels real, which is an unexpected, but welcome change.
It’s strange to say this about a musical, but the acting performances place the singing in a spot where you’re compelled to accept these people as real. They have fibre. Grit. Determination. Sorrow. Genuine, genuine sorrow.
The casting in this film is superb, too. It’s probably the magic ingredient that allowed this production to be so good.
Jackman is simply great as Valjean. Russell Crowe seems wooden as Javert and is probably the worst singer in the film, but Javert is such a rigid character that Crowe’s performance suits Javert down to the ground. Helena Bonham-Carter is fantastic in nearly everything she does and this is no exception, playing wife to Sasha Baron-Cohen’s ‘Master of the House’, Thénardier. Yes, they even made Borat look good. Exceptional, actually.
The standout performance, without doubt, belongs to Anne Hathaway as Cosette’s mother, Fantine. I defy anyone to watch her feature performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and not be moved. She was absolutely incredible.
The only detraction from this film is that it’s looooooong. Over 2.5 hours, in fact. It could have been paced a little quicker, but I’m not complaining.
In fact, I’m giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars.
An outstanding film. It’s a testament to Victor Hugo’s original story that it can be told with singing that’s below what you expect, but still be totally compelling and full of such emotion.