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saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Les Misérables (12A)
Odeon, Swiss Cottage
3rd January 2013

★★★★☆

Depending on your viewpoint, I'm either the perfect person to give an objective critique of Les Mis, or a monkey Philistine who doesn't know what he's talking about. Suffice to say, I've never seen the musical, nor read the original book all the way through (I got bored 40 pages in when Victor Hugo was still bashing the Bishop). And while I do like musicals, it's usually just those with "Horror" somewhere in the title.

Frankly, the story doesn't appeal. Man (Jean Valjean - Hugh Jackman) steals bread and is jailed before breaking parole. Petty policeman (Javert - Russell Crowe) attempts to bring him to justice. In the process, Man ruins the life of Woman (Fantine - Anne Hathaway) and takes on Daughter (Cosette - Amanda Seyfried) who falls in love with revolutionary (Marius - Eddie Redmayne) and Man tries to reconcile his frankly creepy feelings towards a girl he's raised forever. Obviously there's a lot more to it than that, but it baffled me why it needed so many pages to tell.

So colour me incredibly surprised with Tom Hooper's latest effort - an over-the-top and bombastic affair when it needs to be, a low-key and actor-driven effort at other times. There's no doubt this is the King's Speech director trying his hand at another lavish period piece, but whereas I found Firth et al a tepid bunch in a so-so flick, here the style oozes off the screen and never lets up. Even in heartbreaking scenes involving emaciated Anne Hathaway's dying croaks.

There was also a vitality in the clear freedom with which Hooper treated filming some epic scenes. Health and safety went out the window - along with tables, chairs, pianos and bookcases, during a scene in which the revolutionaries fortify and occupy the streets. Hooper simply ran three cameras about the place and instructed the gleeful stars and cast to simply "Build a barricade". But his tightness can be seen certainly in the opening number, Look Down, a work of pure precision.

As far as the recording of the songs goes, the cinematography starts better than it goes on. Danny Cohen and Hooper give On Parole and Valjean's Soliloquy a wonderful sense of confession, making the audience complicit in the protagonist's crimes while allowing Hugh Jackman to act his little socks off. This would be a great artistic decision if it didn't then extend to every single other song, resulting in Hooper screaming in our faces: "Look, they are singing live! Told you!"

But for the most part, the performances are intense. Nowhere is it more obvious that these are actors singing (in a good way) than with Hathaway's heartbreaking I Dreamed A Dream. This has become the zenith (or nadir, depending on your viewpoint) of the emotional bludgeoning Les Mis provides and she does it an incredible justice. Her voice is that of a truly destroyed woman - as destroyed as the majority of the audience, although not me. Indeed, even After happily admitting crying at Life of Pi, Up, anything, really, there's an indefinable reason I didn't connect here. That's not to say I can't appreciate it from a critical standpoint, though.

And nowhere is it more obvious that these are actors singing (in a decidedly dodgy way) than with Crowe's Javert. He's been getting a fair bit of bad press about his role, but mostly because of his voice. Personally, I thought his bag-of-bricks-smashing-into-a-chain-link-fence sound worked for the again very broken Javert. Granted, his final number, Stars, was more of a whinge than a quasi-villain finding redemption in (spoiler alert) death, but he more than holds his own in duets and ensemble numbers.

The supporting cast were obviously great, recruited as they were from the world of musical theatre. Former Nancy Samantha Barks delivered a powerful and tragic On My Own as Eponine, and Redmayne made an inoffensive if not particularly memorable Marius. The only sore thumbs came in the shape of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, who, as the comic relief evil publicans, seemed like they'd drunkenly stumbled from Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Not good.

While it has garnered a slew of BAFTA and Oscar nods, the cynic in me would suggest this simply comes from what it is and who they are as opposed to any intrinsic merit. See the inexplicable number of nominations for token rom-com Silver Linings Playbook. But having actually seen the film, I can't really begrudge them all of the plaudits as Hooper and co have managed to craft a devilish trap that will snare musical lovers and detractors alike.

Les Misérables was released in the UK on 11th January 2013.

Nearest tube station: Swiss Cottage (Jubilee)



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