|Image adapted from Les Misérables film poster.|
At first, when the singing began with the convicts in the ship yard, it took me a minute to acclimatise as it was so different to have so much of the story sung in a movie. I knew it was a musical version before I went but it’s still something that doesn't happen very often. Most of the movie musicals I've seen before had a lot of spoken dialogue mixed in. When it dawned on me that this was very much dedicated to the musical, this opening number felt a bit like the ‘musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ meets ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.
As well as all the songs from the stage show, there were also some new additions. One being a new song which we hear Hugh Jackman sing in a horse drawn coach on the way to Paris. Though nothing spectacular or really anything to write home about, it did suit the scene to help add some flavour to the bond Valjean and Cosette are developing and show it as a journey for both body and mind. As well as a little bit of originality to refresh it for the big screen, there was also a change in cast. Movie actors took up the main roles although awesomely there was a part for Colm Wilkinson - the man who made 'Jean Valjean' his own in the stage production of the musical. He plays a Bishop in this. It was a nice touch as he literally hands over the baton candle sticks to Hugh Jackman, a new ambassador for the role. There were some other faces from the stage who made it into the film. Samantha Barks plays Éponine (and is excellent) - we knew we recognised her at the time but couldn’t place her. She turns out to be ‘Isle of Man’ Sam from ‘I’d do Anything’ – the BBC reality show that was casting for the role of Nancy in Oliver, she came 3rd in that and was one of my favourites. Since then though she’s been in the stage show of Les Mis playing Éponine as well as in the 25th Anniversary Concert and also more recently playing Nancy in Oliver… shows how much I pay attention! Another to make it into the film from the stage show is Dungannon born Fra Fee who plays one of the revolutionaries – Coufeyrac.
With the cast featuring mainly movie actors, they did an amazing job with the songs that by all accounts were sung live to camera on set. The only criticism that can be made is that of the singing voice of Russell Crowe who was playing Inspector Javert. His voice did lack that little bit of power to make it a great performance like his fellow stars Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway but his acting and look were spot on. Don’t get me wrong, he sang his part well, it wasn't like he performed it badly, it was just that his voice doesn't have the properties to really hit home a couple of the songs that character has. If there is anyone hearing these songs for the first time, it wouldn't stand out as being bad in any way. It just wasn't as good as it can be done. If you have heard a very good version of the song 'Stars' though then you'll know what I mean... like this:
The acting was also great, very believable and sucked you into their world and emotions. So much so, the row in front of us were all in tears. Unlike the usually over the top soppy quality to Marius, in this the rather 'well spoken' actor Eddie Redmaybe was surprisingly likable. Thank goodness they didn't cast Nick Jonas as Marius like they did in the 25th Anniversary Concert - I imagine it's probably best not to have the audience wanting Marius to get left behind in the sewer.
There were plenty of lighter moments too, the main one delivered by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter who added a twist to the Thénardiers. They brought a younger looking but just as devious and funny pair. I loved the added detail here with the movie, rather than just hand movements, they were shown going about their tricks of the trade, something that just couldn't be done on stage. They were also helped a little of course by a surprise visitor!
Another memorable part of this version of Les Misérables which made us laugh (but was maybe only light hearted to a few) was the moment of the sound effect that broke the big fall into the river. For me it was just the unexpectedness of it, I think we were all expecting a splash or a cut away, but the realistic crunchy thud, lol, even just thinking about it has me laugh, ah well! It was just unexpected is all, a nice touch of realism to the not so nice business of suicide. We didn't roll around on the floor laughing mind you, nah it just made us do that awkward trying to hold it in laugh and then we each laughed at the fact we weren't the only one holding back the laughter. The situation being that the row in front were in full teary flow by this point which just made it all the more inappropriate. Another glance at each other of course just made us laugh even more. Belated apology to the folks sat in front of us that night – you probably thought we were callus and uncouth but ah well, we couldn't help it, it just happened.
As well as great acting and singing, the sets, costume, make up and attention to detail were also a pleasure to see. What caught my eye the most were the scenes in Paris. A realistic sized barricade in a realistic location for a start. The fact the houses were part of it too, the windows being used and attacks from roofs etc. A realistic tight and horrible sewer access, unlike the movie we watched the night before which had something like a modern day sized manhole. The sewer itself seemed pretty authentic too! There was even some real next day stubble.
The cinematography was brilliant. From 'fly on the wall documentary' style wobbly cam that moved around the characters (almost examining them), to wide angle still shots on the streets, to shallow depth of field close ups of the actors singing their emotional numbers, to overhead panning complete with CGI landscapes - it all seemed to be there and was all very well done. When needed it was fantastical on a grand scale. At other times, it was subtle, such as with the close ups of characters singing in front of an almost plain background or the delicate touches like the butterfly gently moving it's wings on a metal bar whilst the actors sing to one another through a gate.
It had all the drama, comedy, tragedy and emotion of the stage production but added much more action, realism, grander fantasies and best of all - more context. Anything it did miss was made up for by engulfing your eyes, ears and emotions. My brother-in-law showed us this summary of the plot of Les Mis in emoticons which was doing the rounds on social media sites, it gives a novel summary of the plot which is good for a lol or two.
I've tried hard to find something I remember that I can mark it down for but I can't think of anything beyond what might have been had the Javert vocal also stood out.
Another thing I'd usually say with a film where it is set in another country with characters native to that part of the world is that perhaps it could have been a foreign language film with subtitles - to add to the authenticity of it. That could have been the case with the 2008 movie but with this movie musical, I think that would have taken something away. Based on a West End stage musical - based on a less successful French language version of the musical - based on a book (and perhaps a very old movie that was also based on the book) - it's evolved quite a bit. What part of the evolution this 2012 version uses most is the musical side of it. Though the words to the songs are in English, the music is universal. The language or time period of the language doesn't much matter so it’s just really down to the audience it’s being released to. So with the English language words to the music already being a huge part of what it is and the it's accessability to it's audience requiring this, it fits perfectly. Another point of note was the interesting use of regional accents from around the British Isles which I think worked well overlaid on this French story.
Overall I thought it was one of the best films I've seen in a long time (the best thing I’ve seen at the cinema since the opening sequence of the 2009 Star Trek movie). In giving a rating I’ve tried to take out my fondness for the stage show (as that undoubtedly helped me warm to it) but even after putting that aside, it was very well made, was absorbing, powerful and has the hallmarks of a real classic. And so, it really does have a happy conclusion, they can smile at last! Les Misérables (2012) gets my joint highest score for a movie so far, a magnifique...
Per the The A.L.I.N.I Movie Review rating scale:
9 - Excellent - a real classic - lets hope it's re-released at the cinema.