21/01/2013

Don't miss Les Miserables

There are moments when you think how easy it would be to turn Les Miserables into a spoof. The layers of personal degradation and social ills laid before us are so relentless that whereas most musicals have a tragic bit somewhere, this one has one happy bit amidst the gloom. Having tried and failed to navigate Victor Hugo’s enormous novel some time ago I wasn’t sure quite what to expect; I could imagine the story as a grim 6 part tv drama perhaps but a musical? The songs I had heard from it out of context seemed meandering. While I clearly don’t find the results as emotional as some of the people in the cinema did, the surprise comes on two levels. Firstly, how effectively it pares down the labyrinthine qualities of the novel to give both a social and personal focus, second just how well those songs do work in context.
In all the gloom, Hugh had completely forgotten where he left his Woverine claws



Director Tom Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live on set rather than, as is usual, mime to tracks recorded in the studio works wonders. Thanks to some powerful performances, we can feel the desperation felt by the characters, most of whom Hugo’s story puts through the mill. You may gasp in disbelief that a former convict could become the mayor of a town within eight years but Hugh Jackman’s Valjean convinces you he could. Jackman’s ability to convey strength and vulnerability at once makes this flawed hero a strong fulcrum around which the narrative revolves; when he is off screen the film is harder work. Russell Crowe is Javert the policeman who- again slightly incredulously- pursues Valjean for nigh on two decades- you think he’d have better things to do. When the two actors square up- particularly in the opening scene and later when Valjean is living as the mayor it is riveting even if Crowe’s voice cannot match his rival’s
The most astonishing performance though is from Anne Hathaway whose comparatively  brief but memorable segment as Fantine is the film’s most affecting part. Her `I Dreamed a Dream` is sung from the depths of despair and you can feel every word. Elsewhere, there are strong contributions from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the amusing Thenardiers , Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Epinine -  all give raw, honest singing far removed from the standard musicals style.
As a portrayal of a social underclass fighting both against a corrupt government and public apathy the film is particularly effective. The revolutionary fervour we see bubbling amongst the leaders is soon forgotten by the Parisians who do not turn up to support what ends up as one barricade. There’s an interesting parallel too between Javert having abandoned his working class origins while Marius hides his upper class background to become one of the revolutionary leaders. Valjean though remains a morally dubious character whose actions stem from his mistreatment for stealing bread. Javert’s dogged pursuit – especially under Crowe’s portrayal- suggests as much someone wanting to keep as much distance from his past as Valjean; the two have a lot in common. I don’t quite buy the ending though- after Valjean has spared Javert from the death some might feel he deserves, the latter cannot comprehend the act and ends up killing himself. Valjean has presumably learned to forgive, but Javert’s act is less believable than if he had- while undercover- decided to actually join the revolution.

With perfect staging Hooper never overplays his hand preferring to concentrate on individuals with just the occasional epic flourish to nourish the narrative. He successfully sells a tale that pulls at the threads of credibility but nonetheless makes us think about society’s worst ills. There are many stirring moments and you feel a real connection with the main characters. By concentrating on people rather than spectacle he ensures that for all its gloomy themes, Les Miserables is a musical with heart. 







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