Do you hear the people sing?
I grew up listening to musicals, lots of musicals – they were my mother’s compromise between Classic FM, her radio station of choice, and Capital FM, that of me and my sisters. As a child I loved Les Misérables, which to me was an epic story of love, courage and sacrifice told through stirring lyrics and wonderful composition. But, thinking about it now, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel leaves rather a lot to be desired in terms of the story, reducing, as it does, the important themes of justice, equality, punishment, poverty, politics and revolution to melodrama in which each interaction between characters is milked for maximum emotional impact.
The backbone of Les Misérables is the rivalry between convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). Javert hates that Valjean was released from prison (where he served nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread) and, when Valjean breaks his parole, Javert vows to hunt him down and bring him to justice.
Unfortunately, neither Jackman nor Crowe has the vocal ability required by the songs they are asked to perform. This, combined with director Tom Hooper’s much-publicised decision to have his cast sing live, actually weakens the intensity of the film. Jackman, despite having trained in musical theatre, struggles with Bring Him Home, and his performance of Who Am I? is also patchy, though saved by his acting. Crowe has his own band (though admittedly that is no marker of vocal talent) and yet he is mis-cast as Javert, his voice so limited in range that we are given a wooden stick of a man instead of the troubled and conflicted man of the law who is so tortured by what he sees as failure that he commits suicide.
Having the cast sing live works in part, as their close-ups (particularly of Anne Hathaway as Fantine) can convey their strength, despair and love, but seeing such straining faces soon becomes tiring, and reminds the audience of the technique rather than the outcome. Hathaway as prostitute Fantine is as brilliant as the reviews have said; her heartbreaking performance of I Dreamed a Dream is the highlight of the film. I was also pleasantly surprised by Eddie Redmayne’s singing ability, and he imbues the song Empty Chairs at Empty Tables with real passion and intensity. On the other hand, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are hopeless as immoral innkeepers the Thénardiers. The rousing Master of the House becomes, in their hands, a ridiculous sequence of unbelievable, and disgusting, methods of trickery.
Though Hooper has an Oscar for Best Director under his belt for The King’s Speech, I’m not surprised he wasn’t nominated in the same category for Les Misérables: the sets feel small, every single line is ‘sung’, and at just over two and a half hours, the film feels overly long. This last despite the fact that Hooper has cut many of the original songs and inserted a new one – Suddenly – which serves no apparent purpose and is poorly composed.
Watch Hooper’s film for the eight minutes in which Anne Hathaway is on screen. Otherwise, buy the original recording with Philip Quast and Colm Wilkinson as Javert and Valejan respectively. Or, better still, read the book.