31 December 2012

Film review: Les Misérables

Why it left me a bit miserable 

There are plenty of reviews of the film Les Misérables – I suggest starting with this one by Daniel Lammin on the site Switch – so this isn't really a review and assumes that you've seen it. But it's spoiler free if you haven't.

Facey comments weren't enough to describe why I didn't like it, so here are some words about why I was disappointed.

Expectations too high?

I don't think it's misguided to have had high expectations for this film. It's based on the world's longest running musical: 28 years in London.  It had a budget that created an opening scene with 100s of extras pulling a broken battle ship into port in a storm, and a city-wide barricade with its own Paris to be barricaded. The cast is a smart mix of Hollywood A-listers, music theatre favourites and stars of  Les Mis-past. And it's produced by Cameron Mackintosh: the bloke who refused to make the film until it was right and has assured that 60 million-odd people have seen the stage musical.

60 million. When it was first produced in Australia in 1987 (I saw it in '88 and '90), we had a population of 16 million. Even accounting for the multiple viewings, a lot of people have seen, and adore, Les Mis.

This is how much people love this musical. 

 So why is the film so dull?

I went with a bag full of tissues. I sat in the emptier front part of theatre so I could quietly sing along and expected that I'd have seen it again by now. I love Les Mis. I loved the trailers for the film. I love that they sang live on set and was so ready to trash all those cold-hearted nay-sayer critics who just don't get musicals and criticised a film that was made with such brilliant ingredients that it couldn't possibly go wrong.

But I didn't cry (I cried when I saw an amateur production in Canberra and in 10th and 25th anniversary concert films) and had no desire to sing along. I found the whole experience a bit of a snore and came home and "liked" a couple of those nasty reviews.

There's a lot of gorgeous and things to love to bits about the film, but director Hooper doesn't seem to understand how music works in story telling.

What I did like about it 

It looks wonderful – money can create amazing design – and it's clearly made with the same love for this musical that has made it so adored.

Some of the deaths look especially marvellous.

There are some astonishing performances and the live singing on set is genius.

The cast sang live on set with an earpiece attached to a pianist. The result is emotionally raw and real and makes for an intimacy rarely seen in film musicals, where the singing is mostly pre-recorded and mimed on set, or on stage where performers are singing to large rooms and hundreds of people.

But the best reason to see it Anne Hathaway as Fantine. I'd see it again just for her. She's that good and "I dreamed a dream" is the highlight of the movie. If it were all directed like this, it wouldn't be getting the dud reviews.

Colm Wilkinson (who played the first English language Jean Valjean) is a tad theatrical but his appearance as the pivitol Bishop, who gives JV back to God, is lovely and gives a wonderful link to the first productions.

Our Hugh Jackman as Valjean is also lovely, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are delightfully dark Thénardiers, Samantha Barks is perfect as Eponine, as is Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.

(I'll get to Rusty in a bit.)

I'm talking to myself and not to him

But the fact that these exquisite performances are bringing attention to themselves means that they are not being supported with equal goodness.

I saw an interview with director Tom Hooper where he says that in musicals the primary form of communication is singing. Really? Tom, I'd like to sit down with you and watch some musicals because in a lot of musicals – and by a lot, I generally mean the the successful ones – the singing is not how characters communicate.

In musicals, characters sing what they feel and what they think. Like a soliloquy (Hamlet isn't saying "to be or not to be" to anyone but himself), the song is what's happening in their head; it's what they can't or won't say out loud.

This is the secret of musicals that can make them (and songs) such an irrationally emotional experience. The best dialogue on film or stage ensures that characters don't say what they really mean, so (just like real life) we understand the emotional truth through the unwritten subtext. In musicals, the songs and music give us the emotional truth, so there's no need to show the rest. The best decision Hooper made was to reject the idea of any dialogue in the film.

In Les Mis, the exceptions are some of the recititive moments ("Yes there's a child and the child is my daughter" is direct communication), but the songs are mostly in their heads and hearts. The Thénardiers aren't telling their customers that they are stealing and the students aren't having a sing-song at the barricade. Eponine even tells every director/performer who doesn't get it with, "I know it's only in my mind. That I'm talking to myself and not to him."

By filming it as a piece of pseudo realism where singing is treated like talking, this film never really manages to capture its heart and makes the songs sound like naff dialogue.

Which brings me to Rusty Crowe as Javert.  He can't sing, so he "acts" Javert and presents the lyrics like dialogue, which makes them sound soppy and melodramatic. The emotion's in the music, not the words. And I have to go back to HE CAN'T SING. He sounds like Les Mis karaoke.

Here's Phillip Quast as Javert in the 10th Anniversary concert. 
Quast played Javert in the first Australian production.
He can sing.

The emotion is in the music

Music makes us feel in ways that words never can. I don't know how it works, but music creates a gut-felt emotion before our heads catch up. Lyrics and words don't make us cry, it's the music. There's music in the singing voices, but without the full orchestra, it doesn't create the unexplainable visceral emotion.

This film could be saved by re-mixing the sound. The mix is atrocious.

Filmed musicals always suffer from the distance between singer and orchestra and can never capture the effect of being in a theatre, but a film is not a live theatre, so it's best that they create something different.

A full orchestra is mixed in, but at times it can barely be heard, leaving the singers with no emotional/musical support. At other times it sounds like the orchestra was recorded without even hearing the voices, which makes them sound out of time. And when people sing together it sounds like they are singing apart and the joy and power of interacting voices is lost.

The only time I nearly cried in the film was in "One day more". On stage this is the Act One finale. Dramatically, emotionally and musically it is the first and only time all the main characters sing together and, despite all their different stories and motives, it unites them by finding the one thing they have in common: that "tomorrow we'll discover what our god in heaven has in store". I teared up because the film didn't unite them and was on par with a blah 80s-style montage.

On screen, every one is shown their real world, so they never come together and even though the live singing creates incredible individual performances, singers need to hear each other to sing together.

You can see it here. (It doesn't want to be embedded.)

 25th birthday version (with all its odd casting).  
But NBC have blocked EVERY version. Really NBC! 
Ever thought that You Tube clips make people want to buy your stuff?

Will I see it again?

Yea. There's enough great about it for a second viewing, but it will never be one that I buy and watch when I feel miserable (Cabaret, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Sweeny Todd and  Once More With Feeling).


  1. I've been corrected. Turns out that the offical Les Mis site lies. The world's longest running musical is The Fantastiks. Here's the Wiki link (cos Wiki doesn't lie) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fantasticks

  2. oh no now I have the songs in my head, great review, I'm actually looking forward to seeing it more now, without all the hype.

  3. I've been singing it for the last month.