Even if you haven’t been one of the 51 million people (like, everyone in Ireland and then some) who hotfooted it to a theatre over the past 28 years, you’ll be familiar with the musical which spans the trials, tribulations and brief triumphs of its varied characters against the backdrop of young revolutionaries raging against the machine. Those unfamiliar with even that much detail will have encountered Les Misérables in their cultural consciousness through the infamous poster of a young Cosette against the French colours: hair blowing in the wind like the oncoming change. When Tom Hooper decided to take the reins of the film adaptation in 2011, it was impossible not to connect the cash cow that is the ensemble cast of this movie musical as well as popularity of Susan Boyle’s ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ to this film’s formation. On paper, it seemed a little predictable.
So what’s different about it? Well, it’s not quite ‘Just Another Teen Musical’. After the adrenaline rush of the opening’s ‘Look Down’, Les Mis swoops through two decades of vibrant characters that are made all the more colourful through the use of live singing over dubbed recording as well as some proficient acting. Hugh Jackman, while at times bringing Jean Valjean into Bang rather than Whisper territory, does a grand job, as well as the stage actress Samantha Barks as Eponine. It’s sort of incredible that, given its effectiveness, live singing hasn’t been done before; although it’s a risk, it loosens the boundaries you sense in a movie musical as well as heightening the character’s presences in general.
Despite this highly effective framework, some elements fall flat. Helena Bonham-Carter might be a little too Mrs Lovett for some people’s tastes while Cosette sadly remains two-dimensional as the plot’s most fragile character without her vocalisation of lifelong pain and confusion when she confronts Valjean’s secrecy. Perhaps the film’s biggest failing is Javert. He and his counterpart, Valjean, are the musical’s opposing forces, the magnets around which the plot orbits. A lot like Harry and Voldemort, neither can live while the other survives, and this almost fateful bond is a fascinating one which not only lends symmetry to the plot but gives it a familiar emotional centre in the midst of an array of other characters. The fact the former of these magnets is a monotonous, passionless hat mannequin renders the central pursuit a slightly hollow and puzzling affair; for a musical that’s essentially about asserting identity, Javert is never fleshed out to his true potential. Instead of being a flawed but sympathetic character, he remains a flat cardboard cut-out in the form of droning Gladiator Russell Crowe, void of the passion and principles you can understand as the character’s motivation.
The Thénardiers, though far more stylised than their stage correspondents thanks to a few pounds of white powder and frayed costume velvet, manage to supply some much-needed comic relief while evoking a sense of the lost grandeur and cunning desperation required to survive. ‘Master of the House’ is brought to life both by the slapstick elegance of the ridiculously spindly Sacha Baron Cohen and by the swooping, diving camerawork which jeers and veers along with the stumbles and stamps of its subjects. It’s not often that you actually notice a film’s camerawork – often it’s an invisible but necessary ingredient like lighting in a play or a background soundtrack. Maybe it’s because I’m a Les Mis outsider or maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for velvet, but the brilliantly choreographed con which translates the Thénardiers’ clockwork routine into a real life dance made this number my favourite.
As for ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, Anne Hathaway knocks it out of the park – the 80s-feel-cruise-ship-clichéd-singer park, specifically. So much has been said about this song in general so I’m just gonna keep this short and sweet, unlike Fantine’s hair (pow!). Anne Hathaway takes it away from the film’s scale – in every sense of the word – and into the corner of the frame in which she delivers what feels more like a spontaneous soliloquy in which she realises every line as it comes, rather than a famous number which verges on cliché. With nothing more than naked shoulders and a bruised face that’s as worn and telling as a Lucien Freud painting, you see every flicker and every subtle grimace before being swept away with the onslaught of tears that are timed to a T. ‘The world was a song’, but the present day is one that’s filled with as much poignancy and weathered integrity as Hathaway’s performance. It’s a performance which meshes the acting skills typical to a movie actor with the vocal dexterity of a West End one – sadly a balance which is only totally attained once.
Ultimately it’s an adaptation that positions story over score and scale over sincerity. Although it’s entertaining with indisputable energy and the striking innovation of live singing, it will always be trumped by its stage origins. It’s mostly the legacy the title Les Misérables already holds which will prevent this film from falling into the pit of other movie-musical ephemera.