Mark Twain once remarked that nothing could make an opera more perfect than to leave out the vocal part. I would generally extend that to musicals; I've always thought they'd be much more tolerable if it wasn't for all that singing. And so it was that I skipped seeing Les Miserables, the musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, when it was in theatres at Christmas. I know the novel well, having had first read it in my high school days. The story remains a classic; at its core are these two men, a convict who finds redemption in an act of mercy and the obsessed lawman who spends years searching for him, all amid the unrest, upheaval, and rebellions of France in the early decades of the 19th century. It has of course been adapted for film several times before; the most recent before last year had been the Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush version (if you haven't seen it, check it out). The musical, meanwhile, got adapted to great success for the stage, and ultimately by director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) for the big screen, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, and Amanda Seyfried.
The other night, there it was, on the express shelf in the library. So, I figured, what the hell?
Well then, having had seen it now... obviously I'm still firmly of the musicals are like fingernails on a blackboard mentality. Though I will freely admit that the reprise of Do You Hear The People Sing at the end with Valjean and the spirits of the dead on the barricades (oops, did I spoil it for you?) is pretty stirring. This would have worked better for me with the actors adapting the book in a non-musical way. We can't always get what we want though. Anyway, that aside, Hooper does give us a France of two centuries ago in vivid detail, the grubbiness of the streets and the condition of the poor all too obvious (and for some reason, everyone's singing). There's a rich attention to everything, from sets to costume design to put us in that place. And most of the casting is pretty good. Hugh Jackman makes for a good Jean Valjean, a man spending the prime of his life in prison for the minor crime of stealing a loaf of bread, and spending years afterwards seeking redemption in a quiet life and the foster daughter who comes into his world. Crowe embodies Inspector Javert well, carrying an authoritarian air, a man who sees the world in strict black and white. He finds himself at a crossroads, struggling with the notion that a convict can become a better person, a fact that defies everything he has ever held dear. As to the quality of their singing, I'll leave that for fans of musicals to comment. I would have just preferred everyone stop singing.
Anne Hathaway sympathetically plays the tragic Fantine, doomed to an early death (death is a big thing in this whole film, in case it's not already apparent). She's had it tough in life, and yet finds energy to sing. And sing. And sing some more. And just when we think she's done, she's singing a little bit more. Amanda Seyfried plays her adult daughter Cosette, raised by Valjean. She's the ingenue role of the story, of course, falling in love in an instant... but stuck with someone who, well... we'll get to that when we get to the bad parts of the film. Samantha Barks plays Eponine, who features into later parts of the film during rebellions in the streets of Paris. She's got her heart set on a fellow who seems completely oblivious to her- and she deserves better. Yes, you guessed it, she buys the farm too ( they could have just named the film Everyone Dies). Still, she plays the role knowing her character deserves better than this. While singing. Did I mention the singing?
This brings us to the bad. Marius is a key figure in the novel, and he's been played well before. In the Neeson & Rush film from 1998, Hans Matheson played the character with conviction, and we got the connection between he and Cosette in that film. In this, however, we are stuck with one Eddie Raymayne, who is singlehandedly the worst actor in the ensemble. There's no conviction, no strength, no spark, no intelligence in the role. Not a thing. It's like we're looking at Kristen Stewart's long lost brother, with maybe one or two extra facial expressions. And for some inexplicable reason, both Cosette and Eponine seem to find the nitwit irresistable.
The other bad actor in the cast has a way of tarnishing a very good actress, seeing as how she spends most of her time onscreen with him. Helena Bonham Carter, whose work I consistently enjoy, finds herself cast as Mrs. Thenardier, the innkeeper and something of a thief, with a husband who's just as much of a thief. Unfortunately, however, he who is cast as her husband is the problem, and being in his company doesn't do the usually wonderfully spirited Carter any favours. Sacha Baron Cohen is one of the world's most obnoxious human beings (yes he is, times infinity plus one... this is Russell Brand level obnoxiousness). To say he is an irritating rock troll is an insult to rock trolls, who have better manners and charm. Every second the man appears on the screen, I feel compelled to throw something at him. He's essentially playing his own obnoxious self (I suspect variations on that are all he's capable of, judging by his previous work), and I would have rather liked to see a French soldier come out of nowhere, take him out, and just put the audience out of its misery.
Anyway... I'm not a fan of musicals. Fans of musicals might well have loved this one, particularly if they're long time Les Mis fans. Or they might protest that Hollywood actors don't sound the same as Broadway singers. Those like myself, who find musicals to be cruel and unusual punishment might want to seek out an earlier adaptation. I would have preferred to see Hooper assemble this cast for a straightforward adaptation that didn't involve caterwauling. As long as Cohen and Redmayne were stranded on some deserted island, or in the high Arctic (without wintercoats), somewhere they couldn't annoy us.
And so with that, it seems, as you'll see, that Les Miserables inspired a lot of twisted pics. I'll leave you with a whole pack of them.