Les Misérables

Director    Tom Hooper
Starring    Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter
Release    25 DEC (US) 11 JAN (UK)    Certificate 12A
2 stars


10th January 2013

Let me tell you straight off, I'm not really a 'theatre person'. I'm exactly the sort of philistine who would probably walk out of a matinee showing of The Mousetrap at The Windmill if the concessions stand was closed. The last thing I saw in a theatre was Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark. The time before that was The Woman In Black, but only because I knew it was considered exciting enough to be made into a film. The time before that was probably Garfield: Live!, although to my credit, I was about six at the time (even so, I still remember being terrified of Garfield's perennially glassy, non-blinking eyes and fixed, rictus grin. Maybe I caught him on a Monday).

The reason I'm admitting to my cultural desolation is because Les Misérables is very obviously not in my wheelhouse. Though I grew to resent the hours of my life it took from me, I am nonetheless able to appreciate that, for some, 157 minutes of people singing about war and love and feelings and bread is a worthwhile endeavour, much like the way I understand films that are shot in the Spanish language are probably of interest to people who come from Spain. Sadly, I know what I likes, and what I likes isn't Russell Crowe bellowing about how sad he is on a rooftop. Les Misérables? More like Meh Misery-blah-blah. Oh, that is good. I'm copyrighting that.

Fantine, attempting a smile.

An adaptation of the stage musical of the book of the film of the book of the comic of the inception, Tom Hooper's take on Les Mis – or 'Liz', if you're into the whole brevity thing – is unique in that the cast sang their musical numbers live on the set, unaccompanied. What you hear is what you get. On paper, this is interesting: the removal of the safety net of the nice warm studio. While this does indeed lead to some genuinely emotive, grounded performances from the likes of Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway (it's exceedingly difficult to be cynical about her rendition of 'I Dreamed A Dream'), the flipside is that you have to endure flatliners like Rusty Crowe trip his way through the songbook with all the grace of an irritated, honking goose.

For some reason, Hooper supplements the main musical numbers by having his cast sing some of the more incidental snippets of dialogue to no tune in particular. It sounds bloody weird; exactly how you imagine self-important 'vocal artists' warm up before shows, by freeform scatting their coffee order to their PR. The result is snatches of serious dialogue, warbled in a highly silly manner, which does tend to undercut the Incredibly Serious Historical Significance which Hooper is so keen to play up.

While I'm on the same subject, has the whole 'two people singing over each other simultaneously' thing ever been legitimately enjoyed by anyone? Really? Surely it's just a devious device used by lazy screenwriters, deployed to dispense with twice as much plot in half the time. Les Mis has several such interchanges, where the only result is that you can't hear what the fuck anyone is saying. After a while, I just tuned out. Even a scene in which GLADIATOR and WOLVERINE have a SORT OF SWORDFIGHT was rendered unwatchable because of their clumsy verbal sparring. Everyone knows you take it in turns with these things. You never see rap battles where everyone just starts rapping over one another. It's not done in the rap community and it shouldn't be done here.

This would never have happened if they'd cast Eminem like I suggested.

I am a professional, and I am willing to overlook my distrust of all things theatrical, as long as the story holds up. Unfortunately – and Tom Hooper is hardly to blame here – but Les Mis sags in the middle like a shitty tent erected in the rain. The first 30 minutes or so fly by, thanks to Hathaway's grit and Jackman's resolve (are you a down-and-out who can't get a break? Just move to a neighbouring town and become its Mayor! Come on tramps, pull your fingers out!). However, halfway through – and that's about 80 minutes in, for those keeping track – the story jolts forward in time and introduces a new set of characters. Faithful though the Student Revolution plot thread may be, it's still bad screenwriting to expect an audience to relate to unfamiliar faces after an hour and a half of film.

Consequently, Les Misérables begins to outstay its welcome very quickly indeed. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter begin the movie as a welcome comedic reprieve from all the slavery and whoring and wrist-slittery, but they quickly become tiresome. Even their surnames are unnecessary long. The initial sparks between Jackman's fugitive Jean Valjean and Crowe's pursuing policeman Javert soon splutter after the third, fourth and fifth confrontations ("Just FUCK already!" you'll find yourself yelling).

Meanwhile, the romance angle explored by Eddie Redmayne's Marius (surely an ancient ancestor of the Wella Shockwaves family) and Amanda Seyfried's Cosette is utterly drippy and not earned at all. They love each other with a passion approximately one nanosecond after making eye contact, and we're all expected to be okay with that. Perhaps on stage it's a thing to behold; on film, their relationship feels awfully convenient. On the plus side, Eddie Redmayne's high-pitched singing voice does sound a lot like Peep Show's Mark Corrigan asking for his Blackberry back in a girl's voice. So there's that.

And don't forget Wang Hat.

Hooper's direction, meanwhile, feels static; too safe and too stagey. Frequently, he pulls in close to his performers to capture every flicker of emotion – that works wonders on Hathaway's big number, but loses its impact the tenth time Hugh Jackman peers into an obtrusive camera while soul-searching. The staging of the Paris sets in the second half is extremely claustrophobic too, giving the whole production an unwelcome 'school play' feel – an effect complimented by an intensely annoying young 'street urchin' character, who I'm happy to report is shot, twice, and killed.

Call me a swine and slap me with your fey leather glove if you like, but it's my blog and my opinion so I'm sticking to it: Les Misérables starts boldly but quickly devolves into a stultifying, sleepy dirge that suffers every second Anne Hathaway isn't on screen. Add a star if you like singing, dancing, mincing, staring longingly out of windows, lamenting things and/or paying £6.50 for a plastic cup of wine, but otherwise avoid like the big gay plague. Frankly, it's not a patch on Spider-Man: The Musical.

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