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Film Review: Les Misérables

21st January 2013

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Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables3/5

I’d like to begin with the virtues of Les Mis – the music is rousing as ever. Director Tom Hooper insisted that all the singing be recorded live during the shoot rather than in pre-production, and this certainly gives the film a fluidity and a freedom that is rarely found in film musicals.

The cast are, unsurprisingly, luminous – even Russell Crowe’s slightly dodgy baritone doesn’t spoil this ensemble. And there are many thrilling moments:  the first scene shows a few hundred prisoners pulling a tall ship into harbour during a visceral storm; in one sweeping camera movement Hooper shows us the scale of this task. Some wonderful duets stand out; an early stand-off between Valjean and Javert is both dramatic and great fun. The death of the final two revolutionaries is dealt with suitable poetry and, of course, there is Anne Hathaway’s remarkable rendition of I Dreamed a Dream, which occurs in one striking take – this scene alone could win Hathaway her Oscar. But beyond these fleeting moments of spectacle, the film remains unsatisfying for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s shot like a music video – which, in a way, I suppose it is. There is little or no break between each of the songs and the editing occasionally verges on the chaotic. This does give certain scenes a breathless excitement, but it also means that there is often no sense of place. On stage this lack of a definable setting is acceptable and passable, because that is the nature of theatre. Stage plays economically build an environment with a limited set via practices like the movement of actors or changes in lighting. Cinema can, and in this case really should, create a whole diegesis that aids in the storytelling, but Hooper seems to have intentionally neglected to do this. There are points where characters appear in unfamiliar rooms or indistinct streets  – there were moments when I couldn’t figure out where the scene was situated at all… this is a shame because, from what I could tell, the set design was stunning, but it’s simply not explored, which means the film lacks any kind of solid ground.

Likewise characters aren’t developed to satisfying level. Sure, we get a loose back-story for Valjean, but Fantine’s is barely there – it was certainly exciting to see Anne Hathaway turning the emotion up to 11; but a three song medley isn’t really enough answer basic questions like who is Fantine? And, more importantly, why should we sympathise?

The most blaring problem becomes evident during the Master of the House number. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham are very good fun and the nastiness of these characters is allowed to come out too – but the sequence wasn’t nearly rowdy enough. I wanted a full pub of drunken camaraderie, but it felt more like most of the tenants had gone home early. Likewise the battle scene wasn’t epic enough for me. It speaks volumes that a stage production (with its limited space and modest numbers of actors) can feel more epic than a high budget cinematic production.

The basic issue is that a film which is adapted from such a grandiose stage play such as Les Mis needs to create a world that the audience can fully immerse themselves in – Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd for example builds a delightfully dirty London, which feels genuine. In this way, Sweeney Todd makes up for the distance that cinema naturally creates; Les Mis fails in this respect. An audience watching a stage production become involved in the action due to the proximity and intimacy that theatre offers. Hooper needed to appreciate that a film has to find a different way of providing this intimacy for an audience – creating more character detail than the play offers and perhaps throwing in a couple of establishing shots in between each song wouldn’t have gone a miss.

But then again, with a running time of over two and half hours, more footage may not be the answer to the films problems. There has been a lot of talk recently about un-filmable novels with Life of Pi and the upcoming Cloud Atlas – but I think Les Misérables deserves to begin an on-going dialogue about un-filmable musicals…

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