Les Misérables

What's this, two trips to the cinema in one month? I only saw four films on the big screen in the whole of last year (and one of those was Prometheus, which doesn't really count).  But Sam was at a sleepover on Saturday, so we ventured out through snow, wind and rain to watch Les Misérables (or Lez Mizrubbles, to give it its correct English pronunciation).



I've been hearing people bang on about Les Mis for more or less my whole adult life - I can't recall when the show opened, but I can remember reading in the Observer in about 1986 that there was going to be a movie, starring Mick Jagger and David Bowie (crikey, heck!). That never happened of course, but the show has been cluttering up one West End theatre or another ever since, and has finally made it onto the screen, and I've still never seen it, or heard any of the songs.

It turns out that the reason for that is that there aren't really any songs in it. Well, that's a bit unfair: while watching the movie I noticed three. There is a rousing revolutionary march which goes 'Can You Hear the People Sing/Dum-de-dum-de-dum-de-dum/It is the music of a people who will dum-de-dum-de something' you know the one. Then there's a comic number called 'Master of the House' which is not quite up to Lionel Bart standards, but stomps along quite catchily. And there's a soupy sort of solo called 'I Dreamed a Dream' which sounds as if the composers scraped it off the very bottom of Andrew Lloyd Webber's dustbin.  The rest of the three hours, as far as I could tell, was filled up with reprises and a lot of recitative, which sounded a bit absurd (as recitative always does to my heathen ears).  Maybe if I listened to the soundtrack a few times I could pick out some other tunes - but I don't think I will.

HOWEVER, while the songs never really rise to the levels of musical achievement you'd hear in the average elevator, the way they were filmed seemed quite ground-breaking to me.*  When Anne Hathaway sings the aforementioned I Dreamed a Dream, it's all captured in one long take, with the camera close in on her face, which is covered in tears and snot and ACTING.  Despite the naffness of the tune and lyric it's surprisingly powerful, and not quite like anything I've seen before. It made me wonder what a film would be like which took this live-singing approach and applied it to a real opera - amazing, I should think. But I doubt the big name actors you need to make a film on this scale would have the singing voices to handle Wagner or Verdi.

Poor old Russell Crowe can barely handle the songs in Les Mis: he stands around on parapets and sort of hoots.  But Hugh Jackman, as the put-upon hero Jean Valjean, is magnificent: he looks so right, and acts so well, that I didn't really notice whether he could sing or not (Sarah, who Knows These Things, tells me that he can.)  Anne Hathaway, who seems to be mostly made of eyes, was good too, though I think its fair to say that the female characters are a droopy, doomed, lachrymose lot, like Victorian watercolours done on wet tissue. Helena Bonham Carter, doing her mad-haired panto schtick as the thieving innkeeper's wife, is the only one who's allowed any fun at all.

What I mostly enjoyed was the huge, mad, 19th-Century-novel sweep of the story, its revolutions and moralising and its coincidence-driven roller-coaster of a plot.  Coincidences are terribly out-of-favour in modern stories - I think most authors try to avoid or conceal them, and critics, both the professional sort and self-appointed ones like me, tend to point and laugh if they catch a whiff of one - but I'm starting to think there's much to be said for them. There's a moment in the film (and I presume it's in the novel too, though it's decades since I read it** ) when Valjean is on the run and in desperate need of shelter, and the stranger he appeals to for help turns out to be the very same man he saved from death by cart-related squishing in an earlier scene.  It's a Bit of a Coincidence, to say the least (though it might have not seemed like that to Victor Hugo and his readers, who were perhaps readier than we are to see the Hand of the Almighty in such things), but it seemed to me as as neat as the teeth of two gears meshing, driving the story onward.  I think we need more coincidences in fiction.

So: Lez Mizrubbles: it bangs on a bit, but it was worth seeing, and while I can appreciate the justice of this rather patrician article from The New Yorker, I can also understand the enthusiasm of Sarah McIntyre, who reviews the film here (and she and Stuart do their own re-enactment of the Paris Uprising on the film's Greenwich locations: HOORAY).

*Admittedly I haven't seen a movie musical more recent than Cabaret. Maybe they're all like this now?

**...and I'm afraid I never got all the way through Vol II.

Images swiped from IMDB and the official Les Misérables website

4 comments:

Cary Watson said...

Yes, Les Miserables the book is a bit of a struggle; it's actually rather tedious. There is, however, a great modern French novel called The Voice of the People by Jean Vautrin that's set in Paris during the Commune of 1871. It's got that epic sweep you were talking about plus a surplus of energy and colour. It also won the Prix Goncourt.

Philip Reeve said...

Thank you, that sounds good, I'll look out a copy!

craighallam said...

That was a great review. Finally someone feels the same way about relentless recitative. I sat five minutes into the thing, leaned over to my wrapt partner, and asked her exactly how long this thing should last. At the reply of "three hours", I died a little inside, and continued to slough off whole sections of my soul until the credits rolled.
I'll make her watch AKIRA as punishment.
Thanks for the review, Philip, and the books. Long live Steampunks!

Philip Reeve said...

Thanks Craig. I obviously I enjoyed it more than you did - I just kind of ignored the singing and got lost in the story, and for all its absurdity I thought it was kind of grand. I just found about your Steampunk festival in Doncaster, too; I'll try to give that some publicity on here soon.

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