The Pitch: A movie musical revolution. With a capital R.
The Review: A sweeping musical, with original music complementing classic material, a historical epic with the fate of a nation at stake through a complex love story and a seminal tale of revenge and retribution, but enough about South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut, we’re here to discuss Les Misérables. (Thank you very much, I’m here all week.) It might seem like an odd reference, but if you’ve actually seen the South Park movie you’ll know that it’s not only a musical, but it’s one that pays rather significant homage musically and also a little structurally to the musical now known simply as Les Mis. (Don’t believe me? Listen to this not-exactly-PG song about La Resistance from South Park and you’ll be convinced.) I can recall seeing the South Park movie once with a group of friends and acquaintances, one of whom wasn’t aware that it was a musical; thoroughly engaged by the jokes, but mildly entertained by the songs, by the time the aforementioned Resistance Song rolls around as the tenth song in less than an hour I felt he was on the verge of ripping his ears off in frustration. So let me make this clear right now: Les Misérables is a musical with a capital M, a capital USICAL and a large selection of other capitals, most involving anguish or suffering. The original stage musical, based on a French concept album, contains forty-nine songs, and those not counting themselves of lovers of musical theatre will be thrilled to hear that the film version adds rather than subtracting.
Since its debut in 1985, Les Mis has been dismissed by the critics but lapped up by audiences worldwide, and what you get for your money is pretty much what’s been generating that divide ever since: two and a half hours of an almost slavish similarity to the theatre production in terms of theme, structure and content, but added dimensionality in the staging without the need for 3D glasses. Tom Hooper has done what he can to expand the play for the cinema by a combination of sweeping long shots to provide a sense of grandeur and extreme close-ups to put the singers right in your face at moments of high emotion (which is effectively the entire film). It’s unfortunate, then, that the whole production looks so staged for most of its extended running time, with the barricade sequences in particular looking obviously fake but even the outdoor sequences in some major landmarks feeling too much like people in costume running around on sets than genuine nineteenth century Parisians bemoaning their fate. The other notable comparison to the South Park movie is in terms of that story structure; by paying gentle homage, but working to its own plot and structure, South Park’s movie weaves a sensible and compelling tale that places and moves key plot tools just as it needs to. Les Mis makes no attempt to address any deficiencies in its source, other than adding more music (of which there clearly wasn’t enough), and hopes to sing loud enough to distract you from the plot, based on the most fundamental contrivances and absurd coincidences imaginable.
And boy, does it sing loud. There’s a wide array of vocal talent on display, and most of the acclaim has been so far heaped on the beaten down shoulders of Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, who gets to reinvent the SuBo standard I Dreamed A Dream for cinema audiences. SuBo Who, frankly, as Hathaway’s wrenching, defiant but ultimately broken performance deserves every last bit of attention likely to be lavished on it at awards time. Freed up by the production conceit of recording singing live on set, Hathaway makes the most of her fifteen minutes of fame in the movie (putting the supporting very much into supporting actress), Hathaway’s performance is also the best vocally of the cast. The singing from the two male leads is more contrasting, with Jackman’s stage training showing through in his whispered tones on quiet passages, his vibrato underpinning his impassioned pleas of every high note, hit pretty much bang on. His Jean Valjean is the emotional core of the movie, in almost direct opposition to Russell Crowe’s inflexible, robust policeman Javert; Crowe’s rock band training gives him a voice that slides up to higher notes and is rock solid on every note without a hint of wobble. Despite the differences in approach, both singing styles fit well with their characters – although if you take that to its logical conclusion, then Amanda Seyfried is just an irritating sparrow with no character whatsoever – but Crowe’s performance will feel odd to the ears when almost everyone else in the cast is singing in a theatrical style, and from Eddie Redmayne to Samantha Barks the rest of the cast deliver valiant work. The one pair of bright notes to keep you interested through the rest of the angst are Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, able to give brighter and more subtle performances than would be possible on stage thanks to having a camera almost in their face.
So if you’re a fan of the stage show, and can overcome Russell Crowe’s grandstanding, I’d expect you to be entirely satisfied by what Tom Hooper and his cast have served up. If you’re coming to this knowing the book but not the musical, then good luck, as most of the third part is hacked out and later sequences shortened, character motivations changing occasionally to move the plot forward whenever anyone’s not standing, singing to camera. If you’re coming to this completely fresh, then prepare yourself for the equivalent of a cinematic emoticon: if you look at it head on, it seems rough, ready and somewhat incomplete, just a series of random punctuation that doesn’t even give up its full effect unless you look at it in the right way. But if you accept what it’s trying to convey and go with it, then you’ll instantly get the full effect. This is no simple smiley, but a defiant, emotional face of anger and misery with just the occasional bout of cheer, a thundering steam train that’s on track to run straight over your soul, and if you give yourself to it, I defy even the hardest of hearts not to be forcing back a tear by the end. To call it a musical seems almost to undersell it; this is a rampaging behemoth of the most emotive acting possible which just happens to be set to music, to which your resistance just might be futile.
Why see it at the cinema: If the sound of large groups of women bawling their eyes out (and a few men as well, I fancy) doesn’t put you off, then there’s a decent collective experience to be had. There are a few impressive long shots, but actually it’s the vein-popping close ups that will draw you into the experience. The main benefit, as with most films in the genre, is the ability to hear the full detail of the soundtrack on a better sound system than you’ll ever own at home.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and sex, and infrequent moderate language. Mature, sensible children in the 9 – 11 should probably be able to cope with the more extreme scenes, which amount more to implication than anything actually seen onscreen.
My cinema experience: Arrived nice and early at the Cineworld in Bury St. Edmunds in expectations of the Sunday evening showing being packed out, and it turned out to be about a third full. Picked up the tickets and our snacks (ice cream, bag of sweets and a large drink for a reasonable £7 with the Unlimited Premium discount) and no problems getting a decent seat. Mrs Evangelist felt the sound a little loud (an observation she also made after Pitch Perfect at the same venue), but no other issues projection wise. (She also had to make not one, but two, trips to the little girls’ room after that large diet Coke, bemoaning the lack of interval in such a long film. I’m sure she won’t be along in suffering that problem.) A well behaved audience in general; one person did attempt to start a round of applause at the end which quickly petered out when they realised no-one was going with them. Didn’t hear anyone singing along; for shame, Bury, for shame.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Five trailers, including those for all the Best Picture nominees not yet released, plus adverts and trailers resulted in the film starting 27 minutes after the advertised time.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: When a movie has a gestation period as long and as volatile as this one, you start to wonder if it will ever make it to the big screen. (Or indeed, if they should bother. More on that in a moment.) Several different cast members were worked through, but the driving force always seems to be that Russell and Ridley have a good laugh doing things together, and thought a new take on Robin Hood might be worth a punt. Rumours of several other possible concepts kept appearing, including one where Crowe would play Robin and the Sheriff of Nottingham, possibly in a dual identity scenario.
What we end up with is a movie whose title card makes it clear (and whose trailer has massively spoiled, but it’s not a huge surprise when all’s said and done) that what we’re getting is the story of how Robin became Robin. The largest single problem with that idea is that, unlike Batman where screen origin stories hadn’t really been explored, the Robin Hood story is almost always an origin story – from Errol Flynn to Kevin Costner, most of the major tellings of the story clearly show how events come to pass. So in an effort to be different, what we get is not how Robin of Loxley became Hood, it’s how Robin Longstride (eh?) took on the role. There are actually two major common versions of the legend, the well known rich versus poor scenario but also one where Robin fights for the English against the Normans, and this looks to incorporate elements of both.
So it all starts well enough – Richard the Lionheart is on the way back from the Crusade trail, and we are introduced to most of the main players, in and around the siege and battery of a French fortress. The action here is clear and well done, and probably most interesting thing Ridley Scott’s done visually since Gladiator. Then crucial characters to the myth start getting bumped off, so Longstride has to wade in to fill in – and the narrative then starts taking audacious leaps of logic to maintain that pretence. And as things progress, it gets increasingly silly. There are well documented problems with the accents – not around them not being East Midlands (as it’s made clear this Robin’s not from Nottingham, and Loxley and his father speak without regional accent anyway), more that while the movie stands still for long stretches, the accents don’t – people seem to be from different locations in different scenes. And when Mark Addy’s Friar Tuck is so consistent, it puts everyone else into sharp relief. But after the opening action, while there’s some action, there’s not very much. While there’s some fun and banter, there’s not very much. And while there’s some drama, there’s… actually, there’s an awful lot of that, but none of it really that engaging.
And by the third act, despite the best acting efforts of the likes of Max Von Sydow and William Hurt, doing what the likes of Richard Harris and Derek Jacobi did for Gladiator, any sense of believability, even within the confines of the story itself (never mind in relation to the actual myth) has long since saddled up its horse and ridden into the forest to hide. With a finale that seems to cast almost everyone as a complete idiot in terms of battle strategy, not to mention that it’s simply being Saving Private Norman, the movie pretty much ends where it could and should have done, but for the need for a coda which, in just two or three minutes, shuffles the pieces round to leave us with the approximate cast of characters in the expected places for a Hood movie. So should they have bothered? Given how almost every other version of the story, and even the daft ideas tossed out in the script stage, was more interesting than this one, I’m going to go with probably not.
Why see it at the cinema: For the opening siege on the French castle, and for the epic vistas matching real current locations like York Minster and the Tower of London into the 12th century backdrops. But not if you want to see a proper Robin Hood movie, sadly.
The Score: 4/10