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“Les Misérables” the film, reviewed.

February 6, 2013

Once used to the concept that this is “the film based on the stage show” and not “the film of the stage show” (as happens to all movie versions of famous musicals like “The Sound of Music”); and also accepting that the extra dialogue and explanations are a necessary requirement in order to make the whole accessible to widest possible audience;  it was easier to settle and let the movie find its own level.

It’s long, and played straight through for two and a half hours simply because, I suspect, it would prove impossible to insert an interval without destroying the momentum that takes around the first forty minutes to build anyway.

Find momentum it mostly does, with the writers unafraid to experiment with the established stage script. A few of the lyric changes, more obvious expositions and illogical decisions like explaining some things but not others (Valjean goes from “planning a wedding” to dying seemingly instantly) aside, some changes actually bring a whole new dimension to the work.

The big solo numbers translate best, their positions often altering to aid narrative clarity. “I Dreamed I Dream” emerges just after “Lovely Ladies,” Anne Hathaway creating a stunningly intimate moment impossible in theatre, while Samantha Barks deserved an Oscar nomination for her equally impressive re-located “On My Own.”

The decision to set up “Stars” to compliment visually “Suicide” later in the film is equally successful (vertigo sufferers may wish to give IMAX screenings a miss), while “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” works terrifically well with an imaginative interpretation.

Of the soliloquies, only “Bring Him Home” suffers, woefully devoid of the stillness it requires. New song “Suddenly” can be overlooked. Everybody is entitled to a crack at the “best song” Oscar (however much it slows the action and seems a little pointless – even if reasonably tuneful).

Moving on to the duets, “Master of the House” with a neat but superfluous running gag from Sacha Baron Cohen and a perfectly cast vicious Helena Bonham Carter demands rather than politely asks for laughter, but is inventive if unsubtle.

Far more successful is the chemistry between Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried as lovers Marius and Cossette, sharing tender moments that make their eventual wedding a true cause for celebration. Redmayne’s “Little Fall of Rain” with Samantha Barks equals this, and suggest Barks edges Seyfried on strength of writing rather than acting ability – of which both ladies have more than could be considered fair by anyone.

Oddly, the film is weakest in its “crowd” scenes. The ensemble work that punctuates the stage version and acts as a backdrop to the individual stories is somewhat lost in the picture. There’s no opportunity for the iconic barricade of course, but neither is there any sense of a people moving in unison towards a common cause. “Do You Hear The People Sing?” No, not really, and that’s a shame.

If it’s taken a while to get around to remarking on Hugh Jackman as Valjean and Russell Crowe as Javert, the male leads, it’s because it took me time to get used to Javert bearded and Valjean clean-shaven and “toff-like” for most of the film; quite a departure from the stage version as I always remember it.

Jackman brings a refinement to the part that I’ve not seen before, while Crowe seems less a man of principle than a person “just following orders.” We get less sense of an individual locked in moral combat than a bureaucrat completing a task, alas.

Still, one jarring lyric change aside, the ending remains as powerful as ever, reducing this reviewer to almost the same incoherently sobbing state as my first visit to the original cast in 1986. Thank goodness for a back seat with the rest of the row empty.

This isn’t the filmed record of the stage show that every Miz fan has desperately wanted since seeing it on stage for the first time, but it is a decent effort at interpreting the music and story, taking greater visual opportunities than possible on stage and with a much more varied cast. A satisfactory new memory, but the original live source arguably remains more immediate in its relationship with audiences. Still, a film with some scenes and cast members to treasure.

  1. Sarah permalink
    February 6, 2013 10:16 am

    While I agree with most of your review I cant agree with your comment that Helena BH was perfectly cast. – I expected so much more – she could have really excelled with her comic genius and such a great character, but I felt deflated after seeing her performance ( the first , second and third time !) Cohen was the same – in the stage show they bring such humour, but barely a laugh was heard in the cinema…because they just were not funny! I was also aggrieved that the northern voices have ( on occasion !) been carried over from the 25th Anniversary tour . Having said all this – I love the ability to get my Les Mis fix whenever I want at a fraction of the cost ! I was disappointed initially with Russel Crowes interpretation of Javert , however after watching several times I am warming to it – ,like you I am disappointed that it does not have the intensity of obsessive persecution of every Javert I have seen on stage. I loved the crowd scenes, and it was wonderful to see so many familiar faces from the West End !

    • Steve Rich permalink*
      February 6, 2013 10:39 am

      It was the pure evil as she hissed at young Cossette through the slats, and the calculation in her every move that got me.

      I think on the whole you are right that they didn’t make enough of the characters of innkeeper and wife and tried too hard to make something funny that already was. Javert, yes, I think if I saw it again I’d be more used to him too.

      No idea about the accents – not seen the tour, alas, but loved spotting all the “faces.”

      As for getting a “fix” cheap: what I paid was amazing… could’ve seen the show for a lot less LOL.

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