The film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 epic centres around Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean and his journey from vengeance seeking ex-slave to moral upstanding citizen, charged with a young orphan, pursued by Russell Crowe’s lawman Javert, and getting caught up in a Parisian Rebellion along the way.
Now, I’m not particularly au fait with musicals but in the few that I have seen the ratio of songs to dialogue falls very much in favour of the dialogue with the musical numbers interspersed throughout. Les Mis is completely 100% singing; a ‘sung-through’ musical to use the correct term, and while it takes a little getting used to (especially when characters are basically just talking to each other, but melodically), the cast sing their parts with such conviction it never seems silly.
Apart from maybe ‘I stole a loaf of bread.’ I giggled at that.
However, aside from a comedy turn from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s unscrupulous landlords, there are no laughs to be had in the two hours and 40 minutes running time. It’s called Les Misérables for a reason.
The sung-through and on set approach (the cast had head mics on and the performances you see on screen is them singing right there in the moment. Not added in from a recording session at a later date) is perhaps the films greatest triumph, allowing the actors to really belt out the songs with all the emotion they can muster. You can see Hugh Jackman’s veins popping out of his forehead with the effort throughout “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and it helps the power of the words. He is singing with conviction and it shows. But the success of this approach is none more evident than when Fatine (Anne Hathaway) sings “I Dreamed A Dream.” Full of raw power and emotion, watching her face and voice turn on a dime from anger to despair countless times in one long shot in extreme close up. It’s amazing acting through amazing singing. It’s the best scene in the film.
Of all the cast, who are uniformly excellent, it’s sad that Russell Crowe’s voice doesn’t seem as proficient as the rest of the cast and as such his songs are perhaps the weakest in the film. It’s not really his fault considering he is usually sparring vocally with the musical theatre trained Jackman, but his songs resemble someone barking orders. And on that point, there are a few numbers in which a multitude of characters are singing over each other, and you’re lucky if you can make out what either is saying. In any other musical this mightn’t be too much of a problem, but in this one where character motivations are only revealed in song you could miss an important plot point in the muddled arrangement.
In a film as long as this one, there is bound to be some considerable sagging, and unfortunately Les Mis is no exception. While the first hour flies by, the last hour and a half while never boring or bad does feel sluggishly paced. The first half is vibrant, full of forward momentum and epic in scale, the second half grinds to a halt as we jump forward a few years and spend nearly an hour in a cramped soundstage doubling for the backstreets of Paris waiting for the rebellion to kick off.
Enjoyable is probably not the right word to describe a film like this, but I was immersed in the world and eager to see how everything reached its conclusion. The cast sing/act their hearts out, and several of the songs will raise the hairs on the back of your neck, while the final rousing number, ending on a somewhat happier note than all that has gone before it might just have you choking back the tears.
Review by Jonathan Cardwell.
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