“…everything is sung through, tunelessly, a technique that sounds just like a particularly affected way of shouting.”
“Unless you surrender yourself completely to the juggernaut, this Les Misérables is exhausting, if not infuriating (it made me bad-tempered for two days, a personal record.) It’s far too long…”
“Popular doesn’t always mean pap – and a form which brings such pleasure and joy to so many deserves to be celebrated and treated to … informed critical scrutiny”
It is said that the shortest correspondence in literary history was between Victor Hugo and his publisher Hurst and Blacket. It followed the publication of his 1862 novel (17 years in the making) ‘Les Misérables’. Hugo queried its reception with a single-character telegram, “?” and the reply came back, “!” – indicating its success.
Even so, it is unlikely the author could have imagined that, 150 years on, the title would be so universally known as to have entered common parlance, simply as ‘Lay Miz’.
Not too many will have read Hugo’s 1,300 page novel but almost everybody is familiar, to some extent, with the Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel musical adaptation – one that recovered from modest beginnings and indifferent early reviews to become a theatrical phenomenon.
Sally Frith, from Gloucestershire, has seen it a mere 957 times! And perhaps that is exactly the sort of obsessive devotion from fans that cause certain of us to sneer. If you watched Sue Perkins ‘Climb Every Mountain’ – a Christmas special in search of the real Maria Von Trapp – then you will know exactly what I mean.
In the wake of, ‘The Kings’s Speech’ director, Tom Hooper’s recently released movie version of ‘Les Mis’ a lively debate has sprung up between theatre/cinema critics. There are those such as the provocative David Sexton, of ‘The Evening Standard’, who castigate musicals as ‘innately idiotic’ and who disdainfully asks, ‘How can anyone who loves music enjoy musicals?’; while Lyn Barber of ‘The Guardian’ dismisses such views as high-minded snobbery, born of ignorance, towards an art form that fills so many with joy.
It is a movie and genre that clearly divides opinion. While most reviews are mildly euphoric a significant minority are haughtily hostile.
Musicals are not normally my preferred cinema choice but, then again, I have seen sufficient good ones: ‘West Side Story’, ‘Cabaret’, ‘Evita’, ‘Chicago’, and yes – even ‘Grease’, not to subscribe to wholesale condemnation.
I have watched ‘Les Mis’ on stage, albeit nearly twenty years ago. I recall it as a moderately enjoyable affair, but one that fell short of blowing my socks off. The somewhat faded memory I carried with me to the cinema, this week, was one of an earnest tale, played out on cleverly constructed sets, carried by a few decent tunes, reprised throughout, and occasionally interspersed with harmonious, uplifting outbursts from a flag waving chorus-line.
Let’s be fair, the storyline, set against a backdrop of events leading up to and including the Paris uprising of 1832, is hardly a bundle of laughs, and to a certain extent my previous synopsis held true with the movie version – but this time around I got a sense of what all the fuss is about. In keeping with Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, I had my Damascene moment, finding the whole 158 minutes compelling and thoroughly enjoyable. Well pretty much – it was perhaps ten minutes or so too long!
Although some may try, it is unfair, to compare the stage production with the film, they are separate entities and should be judged as such.
Some, such as ‘American Idol’ contestant Adam Lambert, have criticised the screen version of ‘Les Mis’ for its cast of ‘pretend singers’. It is true that the main characters are played by actors not best known for their singing. But this turns out to be strength, as any slight imperfections in their musicality are more than compensated for by the emotional intensity they bring to the performance. Far better, for me, than pitch perfect singing from ‘pretend actors’.
I admit to having had doubts on this score, particularly with regard to Russell Crowe, an actor whose work I admire – ‘A Beautiful Mind’ is well up on my list of all-time favourites. Of all the cast, his singing was always likely to come under the closest scrutiny, but he pulled off his role as, the morally uncompromising Inspector Javert, with considerable aplomb.
Ann Hathaway as Fantine, who prostitutes herself, before dying of consumption, in order to pay for the welfare of her daughter Cosette , is excellent and totally nails ‘I dreamed a dream’ – in an emotional rendition that leaves ‘SuBo’s’ ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ version looking relatively lightweight.
So good was Ann Hathaway’s performance that the only criticism being levelled at her is the perfect nature of her teeth!
Eddie Redmayne, last seen on the big screen in ‘My Week With Marilyn’– and in the BBC adaptation of ‘Birdsong’- proved ideally cast as the idealistic, lovelorn, Marius, a student revolutionary besotted by the adult Cosette, sings surprisingly well. Although, apparently, it needed 21 takes before the poignant, ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ met Tom Hooper’s satisfaction.
I found Amanda Seyfried, as the adult Cosette – rescued from a childhood of mistreatment and misery in the ‘care’ of the Thénardiers, and having blossomed into the apple of her ‘adoptive papa’, Valjean’s eye – rather insipid in comparison to the attractive, sultry, Éponine played by the accomplished Samantha Barks.
A veteran of the stage show, her portrayal of unrequited love for Marius and subsequent, moving, death in his arms, on the barricades, left me inclined to think he chose the wrong woman!
Much needed, intermittent, comic relief from the doom and gloom is provided by the rascally Thénardiers, a second-rate thief of an innkeeper and his unscrupulous wife – an inspired pairing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their flamboyant ‘Master of the House’ and ‘Beggars at the Feast’ routines were high spots and I haven’t been able to get the foot-tapping melody out of my head since!
Back at the barricades for a finale reprise of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?’, in the ghostly presence of Fantine, Éponine and Valjean, all bound for Paradise, there was almost a tear in my eye – but only almost!
It may not have been altogether uplifting, melancholy it certainly was, while, as a tale of redemption, it failed my old English teacher’s quality control test – “Did it leave you thinking ‘What a piece of work is a man?’” But for all that it was pretty flawless as musical drama.
It would have been beyond Victor Hugo’s comprehension that his 19th century literary masterpiece, about the wretched poor of Paris, should enjoy such longevity, through its musical theatre and cinematic renaissance.
While it may remain popular pap to some, the movie is already a Golden Globe winner, in the Best Musical or Comedy category, and it has received 8 Academy Award nominations.
Watch this space…