Film: Les Misérables

Posted on February 8, 2013

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Les Misérables

Directed by Tom Hooper (2012)

jusco’s Rating: ★★★

“I dreamed a dream ♫”

“On my own ♪”

“Do you hear the people sing ♩♫♪”

How many times in the past month have you heard someone bursting out in song with those particular lyrics? Once, or twice, or maybe even everyday? And if you haven’t, you’ve clearly been hiding under a rock. Ever since Les Misérables was released worldwide, it has served as the juicy talk of the town, the ‘in’ thing, resulting in ‘you-haven’t-watched-it-yet-I-don’t-believe-it-hurry-and-get-yourself-to-the-cinema’ reactions from friends raving about it, tears in their eyes just from thinking about it. I finally managed to catch it a few days ago. I’m not raving about the film– no, I’m not particularly rebellious against the masses – and I’ll tell you why.

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I won’t bother summarising the plot. You can read about it on Wikipedia (here, I’ll be nice and post the link). Now what was entertaining beforehand were the reviews, often mixed and polarising. The majority of the masses seemed to love it, even exalt it, not to mention how many Facebook statuses there were about crying. Many applauded the bold portrayal of a story of hope and redemption. But there were a critical handful, Adam Lambert being one of the few whose opinions on Twitter went viral and was ultimately picked by the masses as the focal point for all their hatred against anti-Les Mis heretics. You can read what he said here, but let me just throw in a word for Adam, who is one of the greatest singers of our time and has starred in several musical stage productions as well. He isn’t just speaking fluff and ironically, Russell Crowe agreed with him too.

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But back to the film. Where do I stand? Call me a cheat, but I stand in the middle of both extremes. I enjoyed it, but only when I closed one eye (and one ear) to plenty of cringe-worthy moments. Cinematically, it was wholly entertaining. Bravo to Tom Hooper, who has already proved he knows how to craft a film. A brief thought for past musical film adaptations deliver the impressiveness of this endeavour. He lavished upon the sets and locations, going the extra mile to ensure this piece of cinematic artwork was properly painted as a realistic 19th century France.

95% of the film was comprised of singing, as to be expected. The songs are magnificent, carrying their own weight in whole, as those familiar with the musical well know. We’ve all heard Susan Boyle’s rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and I personally had the privilege of singing a medley in my high school choir. How did this particular ensemble cast fare in their handling of an already acclaimed work? Overall, decent at best. It’s already widely known that all the actors sang live in front of the camera, with the intent of incorporating singing into their acting for as natural an effect as possible. Now though this is a brilliant idea, it falls short when you don’t have singers, but instead have actors trying to sing. What were some of the most talented actors ended up delivering performances that seemed half-hearted (even though most likely unintentional), apparent that they were more focused on singing the right notes.

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I had already given up hope for Russell Crowe, so I was able to grit my teeth and endure his singing. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by his lower register with that deep natural growl, but that’s as far a compliment I can give. Hugh Jackman is no foreigner to theatre and did a marvelous job, though he had a rough start. His powerful high bellows were remarkable, his consistent vibrato must be applauded, and I enjoyed his take on transforming lines of singing to lines of dialogue. Unfortunately, his normal register voice was not up to par; but then again, you can’t blame him considering many are acquainted with either Colm Wilkinson or Alfie Boe, two relentless powerhouse Jean Valjeans. Helena Bonham Carter was quirky as always, though I personally would have preferred Sacha Baron Cohen to be more outlandish and outrageous. But Amanda Seyfried! What a horrific miscast! The moment she opened her mouth to sing, I cringed – she sounds as if she was gargling while singing!

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But all is not lost. I take my hat off and respectfully bow before the three that stole the entire show: Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Samantha Barks (Éponine), Eddie Redmayne (Marius). I get chills just thinking about their performances. Their solos – ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ respectively – were the showstoppers without a doubt. I knew Anne Hathaway could sing, but the perfect mix of singing, acting, and crying were absolutely heartbreaking. The camera refused to zoom away from her face, and we refused to zoom away from her, observing every tear and wrinkle on her face, in anguish. Hands down, the best moment in the entire film. Thank goodness they asked Samantha Barks to play Éponine, considering she had already performed the part in the 25th Anniversary Concert. She is the embodiment of the tragic character and I suspect many will find it hard to envision anyone else other than her in that role. And in addition to these two beautiful ladies, there is Eddie Redmayne who is handsome, his voice even more. There is a warm poignancy in his voice that immediately wins you over. A devastating scene involving both Marius and Éponine was one of my favourite moments.

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I suspect I might get flamed for bashing on certain people for their singing performances. Let me reiterate that as a whole, I enjoyed it and was impressed with its ability to take a musical stage production and carry it over into the cinematic medium, resulting in a theatrical adaptation that undoubtedly works. But I stand by my opinion that due to the combination of singing live as well as not having real (I use that term loosely) singers, many aspects were lacking. And the reason why the three I singled out were outstanding was because of their competence to take the songs and merge them into their respective roles. Only when one has this deep understanding via connection, can one truly sing such lines and mean them without having to worry about the assimilation of music and acting.

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I’m picky because I’m familiar with the musical. If you haven’t watched the musical, do yourselves a favour and watch it. If you want to watch the film adaptation, watch it before you do the musical for obvious reasons. I personally would have loved to see actual Broadway singers cast in this film the way Rent did, but then again it’s all about marketing. Thank goodness some of them were hits despite the obvious misses. And the wonderful cameo appearance of Colm Wilkinson, the man who originated the role of Jean Valjean, was a delight! The homage at the end was a brilliant touch. Would I recommend this film to others? Yes, I would. It’s a great way into the wonderful world of musicals if you aren’t familiar with them, and it is undeniably a film with admirable morals. It’s a good film, just not good enough to watch a second time.

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Posted in: 3-stars, film