MUSICAL May continues at Film Torments with the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the Parisian sewers – that also happens to feature Torments’ first recurring director in Tom Hooper – Les Misérables (and his orchestra).
Musicals and I have a complicated relationship. My favourite types of musicals are the self-aware, tongue-in-cheek type that don’t fall into the typical “musical” category (e.g. Avenue Q), but even then I enjoy watching musicals in a live theatre setting. My issue with adapting musicals to the silver screen is when it diminishes the original production, especially if that film was a person’s first interaction with that material.
I’ve never seen Les Misérables live but I’d always know that certain songs or scenes had already ascended into the zeitgeist. The nature of the beast is that you can’t get away from Les Misérables, but this film was my first interaction with seeing the completed article. I was pleasantly surprised. I went into this film expecting a ham-fisted attempt at transporting a musical theatre production into a film, but what I encountered is an understanding of how films can enhance a theatre production.
The sets in the film feel like a fantastic evocation of what I’ve seen produced for live theatre but with a bigger budget and less constraints in terms of space. The opening scene where the prisoners are hauling in a steam ship, obviously partly green-screen, highlights the vastness of the task the prisoners face by dwarfing them beneath the ship.
The lead up to, and the fight between, the Revolutionaries and the Royal Troops also shows how film can focus on intimate moments between characters but then immediately contrast with wider scenes encompassing the whole of the faction, something that theatre can’t do whilst keeping action going at the same time.
The costumes are fantastically done, perfectly evoking the period and identifying the characters easily in a large ensemble. There is no confusion in distinguishing characters, even as they age and are replaced by different actors; the viewer recognises the change of personnel immediately. It’s a simple technique used by many films or productions of the type which take place over a long time, but the way in which this film manages it is subtly, never drawing you out of the action.
The acting is superb. Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Isabelle Allen (as young Cosette) and a particularly brilliant, Oscar-winning Anne Hathaway all perform fantastically as individuals and as an ensemble. There are some amazingly emotional scenes, especially between Jackman’s Jean Valjean and Hathaway’s Fantine. The synchronicity the actors have with portraying intense emotion through acting and song as perfectly as they do rank among the best musical acting that there has been.
And what can be said of the music that hasn’t already been said? They are amazingly performed by the orchestra and the actors. They can be funny, highly emotional and perfectly timed within the confines of the action. The film makes good use of them as well by keeping the visual side of the film artistic in a way that stays true to the music whilst it is happening. The film soars alongside the music in this film and it’s a delight to see.
Overall, Les Misérables is a fantastic film I do recommend it to fans of, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage shows. But why didn’t I enjoy it as much as I should have? The film has so many great moments that you can’t help but be taken in the beauty of it. But, looking back, I feel as if that’s all there is to it; a series of moments that each vie for your attention and don’t allow others to shine brighter than them.
Sure, there are songs that will be better remembered than others which is only natural but I feel as if the film suffers too much from a need to get every single song as brilliant as the last one and this can be a little overwhelming. With a just-over two and a half hour run time, the amount of information that is presented to the audience is staggering and there is very little information that you can afford to forget.
To make a comparison with a film that has a similar run time, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a brilliantly crafted film that has many recognisable moments that last in the viewer’s mind but there are a lot of moments that people will forget, especially on the extended editions, but they still play their own part. The beauty of it is that you aren’t so overwhelmed with information that you can revisit the film and encounter those moments that had slipped your mind previously.
I feel that Tom Hooper wanted to do a scene by scene, faithful reproduction of the stage show and he wanted to get as much of it in the film as possible. The beauty of live shows, though, is that you can have an interval where people can get up, think on what has happened in the first act and prepare for the second. This film doesn’t allow you to collect yourself and batters you with the brilliant songs that everyone will remember and the great scenes that you must pay attention to until you are a quivering emotional wreck.
What would have been preferable is if the film had spaced out the songs with more scenes of dialogue, like Chicago, so you can have breathing space in-between the memorable songs where you can collect yourself for a bit. Rather than jumping from song to song in a way that left me feeling drained. I enjoyed Les Misérables as a series of highly memorable events. As a complete film though? Not so much.