Just over a week ago, my dad returned home from a curling tour of Eastern Canada, where he was part of the team representing Scotland in a bid to win the Strathcona Cup, a massive trophy that has been passed between Canada and Scotland for well over a century. When he emerged victorious, we had to give him a treat of some form. Someone mentioned the cinema, and he mentioned that he'd like to see Tom Hooper's new film version of Les Miserables.
And so the Munro family embarked on our first cinema trip together for a good few years, a pleasant thing to go and do. I had been secretly hopig to go and see Les Miserables at some point while it was in the cinema. While not typically a fan of musicals, I knew this would be a different type, as it takes a more operatic approach to the whole thing and never stops the singing throughout the entire production. Unlike many of the films I've looked at for this blog, I do actually have some background experience in Les Miserables. The Munros went to see it at the Edinburgh Playhouse when it was on a while ago, and I remember quite enjoying it. I remember very little of the cast or plot, though.
The film starts with a scene that would be rather difficult to stage in a theatre on the same scale. We are introduced to Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601, as he attempts to pull a ship into the harbour along with a few hundred other prisoners. This seems to be pre-revolution France's idea of community service. The slaves sing out in a powerful chorus, which isn't too hard to imagine happening in real life. Then Russell Crowe, in the costume of a Renaissance ice cream vendor, inexplicably joins in. This does nothing to heighten his menace, but I suppose it works in telling you to prepare to have your belief suspended like a king's head on a spike.
During the opening scenes of the film, you're still getting used to the whole non-stop song idea. This isn't helped by the way Hooper strings these scenes together, as if they're clips taken from a greatest hits from the movies DVD. It makes what's happening at the start a bit difficult to follow. Essentially, Valjean meets a friendly priest (who also sings) and settles down with him after being rejected from a few jobs because of his criminal record. Jackman's singing voice is impressive at the start, where its powerful angriness seems to fit in, but eventually it just seems misplaced when he is expected to be gentle and quietly emotional.
The sole exceptional performance in Les Miserables, both acting and singing, is Anne Hathaway as Eponine. Her version of I Dreamed A Dream is gritty and emotional, exactly how it should be. That's where the decision to cast professional actors rather than professional singer-actors appears to pay off. She won the Best Supporting Actress BAFTA on Sunday for her efforts, and it looks like she may just get the Oscar in the same category on February 24. I wish her good luck.
The music in the film is the real triumph, however. It is lifted directly from Claude-Michel Schonberg's original score for the stage musical, and I believe that some of the songs in Les Miserables have the most rousing tunes ever written. They are designed to hit you deep, and still do so. Unfortunately, there is something about the film that just didn't work. Perhaps it's because it lacks the intimate setting of the theatre, but I felt the fabled 'chill-down-the-spine' a disappointingly small number of times. On a drive to Kilmarnock the day after the cinema, I listened to Bohemian Rhapsody on my iPod. I genuinely think I got a shiver more times during that six minute song than during the entire film. I don't know why. The reason you go and see the film is for the emotion of the story, but it just never completely breaks through.
Maybe it just takes time to get used to the characters. It never occured to me during the film that Hugh Jackman could ever be the definitive Jean Valjean. There are just other actors on the stage who fit the role better. Perhaps after repeat viewings this view would change, but for now, I'd say go and see the stage version. It's not got as big a budget, but that's exactly the point.
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