Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Zettel at 20:18 on 15 January 2013
Against all the odds – a triumph: of conception, execution, and performance. Hooper has taken perhaps the most iconic post-war, quintessentially theatrical stage musical; successful beyond all expectation and initial critical reaction, and captured its spirit in the radically different aesthetic form of film.
The assurance with which Hooper threads his way through a series of critical directorial judgements, each of which could have sabotaged this powerful, moving film, is truly impressive. He uses the freedom of film to open out the playing space of Les Miserables just enough to convey an atmospheric evocation of a politically turbulent Paris of the early 19th century; yet he stays in close to distil a keen sense of intensity and emotional power as Hugo’s idealistic tale of the ultimate triumph of hope over despair and a humanitarian faith in the courage of good men and women, whatever the practical pressure of necessity to act otherwise, to first recognize and then fight injustice – social and personal.
Hugo’s contrast between the spirit of justice, tempered with mercy; and the unbending rigidities of the law, indifferent to the impossible conflicts of responsibility created by random circumstance; is perfectly represented by the central narrative thread of Les Mis – the implacable legal absolutism of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) in his obsessive pursuit of Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean – sentenced to 20 years for stealing bread to keep his sister’s family from starving. Hugo’s moral sub-text represented by Valjean is the authentically Christian ethic of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ – forgiveness, redemption; while Javert’s dogmatism sees a single illegal act, whatever its context or motivation, as irremediable, indicative of a sinful soul consigned to inevitable and deserved, eternal damnation.
If the moral framework of Les Mis is provided by Christian ethical sentiment; its spirit is very French: a profound belief in the possibility of instinctive goodness and honour, even, indeed especially, in the poor and oppressed. It is in this humanitarian idealism that it seems to me the deeper appeal of Les Mis resides. Of course the central story of Fantine (Ann Hathaway) struggling against poverty, deprivation and exploitation to protect her child Cosette, is rich in sentiment and pathos but while the characters engage our sympathy it is the wider possibilities of the courage to hope, the determination to survive with honour and integrity intact that makes the appeal of Les Mis so universal and inspirational.
I can’t remember a film in recent times where the commitment of the players is so tangible and total. Hugh Jackman is a revelation as Valjean with a performance of subtlety and nuance; this surpassed only by Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, sometimes ethereal and detached in the stage version. Hathaway’s Fantine is the flesh and blood, viscerally passionate mother of Hugo’s imagination: used, abused and wronged but unwavering in her courage to save and protect her child. Although on screen for not much more than about 15/20 minutes overall, Hathaway is mesmerising and her I Dreamed a Dream conjured from a singing voice technically not much more than adequate, is one of those special, unique moments in cinema. Those few minutes are worth the price of admission in themselves and should, if there is any justice in such things, bring her the Supporting Actress Oscar she so richly deserves.
Other parts are equally well cast and judged: Eddie Redmayne’s fine voiced Marius extracts every frisson of sadness from Empty Tables; and Samantha Barks makes the most of Eponine’s spine-tingling On My Own. The chorus rouses us with the anthemic Red and Black, Drink with Me and Do You Hear The People Sing. Under Hooper’s careful guidance Jackman, gradually teasing out the limits of a fairly good voice, finally lets go with One day More, Bring Him Home and the reprised Who Am I?
I missed a little the rambunctious cathartic, theatrical release of tension represented on stage by the unspeakable Threnardier’s; but Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Coen’s sly, insinuating performances are still well judged. As the grown up Cosette, Amanda Seyfried has a pleasing soprano and a light touch for a part offering few opportunities to shine; needing to convince rather than impress. Ten-year old Isabelle Allen is touching as the waif-like young Cosette and Daniel Huttlestone’s Gavroche suitably cheekily defiant. Crowe’s Javert took a little time to settle with me and is as near to marginal casting as it gets in this Les Miserables: but in the end his bluff, physically uncompromising presence works well in suggesting a man hiding his insecurities behind an uncompromising outward persona; a man morally lost and adrift when his prejudices are first challenged and then disproved.
In another brave and perfectly judged decision, Hopper opted to go for broke and record the soundtrack live, as played, contrary to the safer convention of recording in the studio and post-synching. Not only does this make the singing an integral part of the performances but I suspect created a sense of danger and risk that feeds directly through to the power and commitment of the performances.
The universal appeal and popular success of such an uncompromisingly operatic form with virtually no dialogue, based upon a 19th century French novel by a writer often sniffily intellectually dismissed by a cultural elite of his own countrymen, was always an unlikely phenomenon. But to see Les Miserables on stage was to fall under its spell thanks to the brilliance of Claude Michel Schönberg’s music and Herbert Kretzmer’s resonant English lyrics. By inspired direction, carefully nurturing the vocal limitations of his fine cast, Tom Hooper has done Schönberg and Kretzmer proud. He has added a new and impressive dimension to one of the best loved musicals of recent decades.
If you loved it on stage – see the film. If you haven’t seen it before – see the film. This is popular art of the very highest order. Let the melodies and anthems which have insinuated themselves into the consciousness of we who know the piece, benignly infect you as well. Really: do not miss.
Reports of spontaneous applause, even standing ovations greeting Les Miserables in British cinemas; and people moved to tears by it, add weight to the intriguing question of what it is in us that is touched so deeply by this piece with its uncompromising, non-populist aesthetic form.
It might be argued that our trust in idealism, political and moral was destroyed at 12.30 Central Time at Dealey Plaza Dallas Texas on November 22nd 1963*. Any fragments of innocent faith remaining were blown away first on April 4th 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis Tennessee at 6.01 Central Time**; and finally and definitively erased exactly 2 months later on June 5th 12.15 (Pacific Time) in the Kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel Los Angeles***.
As if to mock our democratic naiveté and credulousness, the revelations of the systematic, cynical venality of Richard Nixon’s White House exposed at Watergate and further fuelled by the revisionist post-hoc character assassinations of both the Kennedy brothers and Dr King, persuaded the American people and the wider democratic world to which they offered leadership, that not only had our heroes been destroyed but that they were never worthy heroes in the first place.
A healthy democratic scepticism gave way to a sophisticated cynicism, which despite the brief but flawed respite of the Clinton Administration, was amply reinforced by the self-serving inadequacies of actual political leadership, the nadir of which was the selfish, self-serving cynical hubris of 8 years of George W Bush.
The relief felt outside America at the signs of a re-kindled idealism within Barack Obama’s rhetoric was palpable; even if tempered by the limitations of implementation presented by a distrustful and disillusioned American electorate and a polarized electoral system.
My point, fanciful perhaps, is that there is an instinct deep within us as human beings that wants to believe, no even demands to believe - not in the perfectability of Man/Woman but that an instinct to recognise and resist injustice; a desire to respect and honour one’s fellow human beings is as real and verifiable as is the more easily proven prevalence of greed and self-interest.
While the sentiment and yes, elements of sentimentality of the lives within Les Miserables engages us on a personal level, the overwhelming success of this piece of popular art for me appears to strike a deeper chord within us – one which links the injustices and inequalities of Victor Hugo’s 19th century France with the ample examples of the same inequity and iniquities persisting almost 300 years later.
Philosophically my only reservation is perhaps the assumption of organised religions; whether the Catholicism of Hugo’s time or the more diverse faith groups of the 21st century, that without God(s) and faith, the instinct to resist injustice and risk all on behalf of one’s fellow man/woman, would not exist. It is again a very French philosophical perception that such an instinct to altruism and humanitarian empathy may be a given of human nature which religion uses and deploys rather than exclusively generates. That we ultimately have a choice between our better and our baser natural human instincts, unmediated by metaphysical assumption or next world rewards is itself a philosophical perspective powerfully represented in the French intellectual tradition of Camus, Sartre and Existentialism.
Of all the Arts, Music cuts straight to the heart; unmediated by words and reason: in this the rigorous operatic form of Les Miserables perfectly represents an immediacy of connection that appears, even in a popular culture in some degree hostile to it, to strike a resonant chord in people of very different cultures and traditions all over the world. That is an achievement that transcends even its undoubted commercial and financial success.
* The assassination of John F Kennedy
** The assassination of Dr Martin Luther King
*** The assassination of Robert Kennedy
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Zettel at 00:31 on 16 January 2013
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Terry Edge at 13:00 on 16 January 2013
Great review, Z. And I don't want to belittle it at all, but the problem I have with Les Mis, and just about any modern musical, is that it doesn't really have any tunes, does it? Just a lot of musical dribble.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Jem at 14:19 on 16 January 2013
I'm with you Terry. There is one passable tune in this - the one Susan Boyle sang. I do, however, unlike you, like musicals - South Pacific, West Side Story: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But this one just seems one song after another with hardly any dialogue and all sung. If I'm going for singing dialogue I'll go to an opera - at least the tunes are good there and the singers have good voices.
Zettel, I think you're right - if you liked the stage version, you'll like this. To me "Les Mis" is a show for people who don't really listen to much music outside the popular genre. People who go and see Andre Lloyd-Webber musicals, for instance.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Terry Edge at 14:40 on 16 January 2013
Jem, I like the musicals you mention. By 'modern' I meant ALW and co. I used to be a signwriter, and there were just the two of us in the sign shop, painting away all day. We often used to amuse ourselves by making up operatic songs on the spot. Okay, okay, I know ... but really our stuff was just as good as ALW/Tim Rice etc waffle. Better, actually.
I don't go much on opera either, apart from the odd decent aria. But I admit this is partly because I used to work in the opera and a bigger bunch of airhead snobs you could never hope to meet (on the performing side, that is).
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Jem at 14:53 on 16 January 2013
I love an opera, me. But I've never met any opera singers. I can't bear ALW's stuff. I do like a bit of Sondheim though.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Zettel at 12:16 on 18 January 2013
I don't like opera and always favoured the unpretentious Singin' In The Rain type deal - not only my favourite musical but in fact just about my favourite film - the one I would save from Kirsty Young's Desert Island Discs waves.
But somehow Les Mis gets under my skin - perhaps for the reasons I tried to explore in my coda. And I don't agree about melodies - some tunes hit you the instant you hear them: others grow on you and then stick in your mind. There are at least half a dozen in Les Mis like that.
The only other musical I know that achieves this total integration of music and drama etc is West Side Story - very different in subject and scope but just as impressive
I think Schonberg's music and Kretzmer's lyrics are by some margin better than ALW - but these things are as ever, especially with music, a matter of personal preference.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Terry Edge at 13:40 on 18 January 2013
Well, given Singing in the Rain is probably my favourite movie too (and by far my favourite musical), I should probably give Les Mis a try.
Opera is preposterous, despite the musical skill required to sing/play it. I find the emotional range of it entirely phoney (apart from what is generated by the odd aria). I'd go so far as to suggest a lot of opera lovers pretend to feel things because they're told to. Rather like those who have to laugh knowingly when the 'humorous' bit is reached in a symphony.
Not you, though, Jem, of course!
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Jem at 14:45 on 18 January 2013
"Singin' In The Rain" is one of my top ten films too. I went to see the stage version in the West End earlier in the year and loved it too.
But I disagree that opera is crap. The stories are rubbish though.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper saturday at 15:53 on 18 January 2013
I'd go so far as to suggest a lot of opera lovers pretend to feel things because they're told to.
That's just prejudice. The people I know who like opera like opera. There may be some people who claim to like it, in the same way as some people claim to like football or jazz or poetry but who don't seem to have watched/listened/ read any in the past twenty years, but this isn't unique to opera.
I took my 14year-old to her first opera recently and she was absolutely entranced. Admittedly, it was Carmen so it's very accessible and packed with good tunes, but she genuinely loved it. We're going to see Hairspray next month because she and her friends all love it, and then the Tallis Scholars (not opera, obviously, but choral music so quite close) in March. I'm hoping she will be open-minded and capable of enjoying all sorts of different kinds of music and will never feel the need to pretend anything.
I do like a bit of Sondheim though.
Me too. Did you see the production of Sweeney Todd that was on last summer? It was fantastic, not just the music and the way it looked, but the way the mood turned on a pin-head.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Jem at 16:45 on 18 January 2013
Saturday I didn't but I wish I had. I envy you The Tallis Scholars. When I was seven I found an old 78 vinyl of Wagner's Tannhauser and played it over and over. No one told me I should like it or I shouldn't like it but I adored it and have always loved opera since though I've never seen one on stage. I go often to the ones the Arts Pic House puts on from the New York Opera though.
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Bunbry at 17:03 on 18 January 2013
If you don't like the music in Les Mis, then aviod 'Chess'. That is the only musical I've seen that I disliked. Apart from the three songs we all know, it is awful (and like Les Mis, has no spoken dialogue).
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Jem at 17:15 on 18 January 2013
Easy to avoid, Bunbury!
Re: Les Miserables ***** Tom Hooper Zettel at 13:52 on 19 January 2013
A friend of mine who loves the music of grand opera always says it is better listened to than seen - because of the rarity of finding a performer who can add acting, dramatic skill to the obviously necessary high level of singing ability. And however liberal one is about size and physioal shape, the incongruity between the musical interpretation and the dramatic purpose it is supposed to express is often undeniable.
The great advantage film has, not just for grand opera but also popular pieces in the operatic form such as Les Mis is that the intimacy of close-up offers the performers a more subtle nuanced style of performance that would be lost on stage. Also, as perfectly illustrated by Les Mis - relatively modest singing voices that don't have to stretch beyond their range can, with skilled acting to reinforce them, arrive at a blend of music and drama that can move us without having to be in the traditional, often for me OTT style of traditional grand opera.
We need to purge Opera of all the usual class-based snooty superiority with its 'I can afford to go to Covent Garden status preening. To be fair I think that is exactly what true artists and directors in this genre want to do.
I would highly recommend not just Opera but also classical music and drama now turning up on cinema-based coverage of live performances - there are very special advantages this means of seeing performances offers. It has been a revelation to me: not just the subtlety and intimacy of performance film offers but also of course usually absolutely superb quality of sound.