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: Just how British a film is it possible to make, if you put your mind to it? Well, to start with most British films looking to sell to a worldwide audience avoid the contemporary and select a specific period. Brits are a sucker for a triumph over adversity stories, so it would be good to structure your story around that. We’re also fascinated with the class divide, so try to illustrate the difference between the common man and the nobility, then great – make it royalty, and so much the better. There ought to be some sort of basis in fact as well, as we have such a noble history we have no need to invent new stories when all of the old ones are so effective.
Right, you’ll now need a thoroughly British cast. Colin Firth was born in a Union Jack nappy and was fed scones and jam for most of his childhood; there is none more British in his age range and with last year’s A Single Man, the full extent of his awesome acting talents truly became apparent. Suffice to say he’s at least as good here as the King of England in waiting. Now, we’ll need someone equally British to portray his wife, so you’ll be wanting Helena Bonham Carter as the woman that most of us know as The Queen Mother. Throw in such British luminaries as Michael Gambon as the current king and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and you’re now well on your way to a British classic.
But you’ll want something to help your film stand out from the long line of British films that have gone before it. So how about some Antipodean tension to vary things up a little? The thrust of the narrative is driven by Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist, who uses unconventional methods to achieve his results, and the core of the drama is very much about the two and their tentative interaction, verbally sizing each other up and slowly but surely finding their common ground. While Firth gets all the theatrics, Rush has the quiet certainty but still gets to show some range. Firth also gets to spark at another Aussie, Guy Pearce, who Englishes up as the distant and disaffected brother David, soon to become king himself. (And don’t worry about the Britishness quota; Jennifer Ehle evens things out as Rush’s very Australian wife.)
Well, you’ve composed a very British concept, script and cast, ideally you can get yourself worked up about something that would only bother the middle classes (the 17 F words in the script originally earned a 15 certificate, now contentiously downgraded to a 12A). With a British director who’s got experience of everything from Prime Suspect through Eastenders to Byker Grove and who creates just the right mix of stiff upped-lipped tone and gentle humour, and who marshals his cast to consistent excellent, you’ve got all the ingredients in place to make the most British film in years. Like everything else British worth its fish and chips, quality runs through this like letters in a stick of seaside rock. It manages to be entirely sympathetic over the stammering issue, rather than playing it for cheap laughs, and the stakes are raised with the ever increasing background tension with the threat of Herr Hitler and his armies growing ever more prominent, but at the end of the day, it’s about a man and his ability to get his words out. If you want a safe night out of top quality entertainment, then The King’s Speech is the film for you – just don’t expect anything too revolutionary.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s your patriotic duty to hand over your cash for this one, packed full of people who may not have been to the cinema since The Full Monty. I hope you can get a seat.
The Score: 9/10