Crikey, Victor Hugo wasn’t lying, it really is miserable! I wasn’t at all familiar with the story of Les Misérables before seeing the film. I hadn’t seen the stage show or read the book; all I knew was that it’s got a lot of big songs and pretty much everyone dies, which I think are the two key elements really. Someone described Les Mis to me as basically being about bread, and I think that’s quite accurate really. It’s about class divide and the lengths people are driven to just to be able to eat in extreme poverty. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is finally released from prison by guard Javert (Russell Crowe) after serving nineteen years for stealing bread, but he breaks his parole while trying to forge a better life for himself. While working as a factory owner he takes pity on sacked employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and promises to look after her illegitimate daughter Cosette, while on the run from Javert. Grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with Marius (and who can blame her, it’s the beautiful Eddie Redmayne!) who plays a role in a student revolution against the monarchy, which is triggered by the extreme poverty of the lower classes. Lots of people die while singing stirring ballads, and that’s basically the gist of it.
The first thing I’d like to point out, as a wee by-the-by, is the amount of effort that goes into making a film like this. And I’m not just talking about the actors and directors and the like. I had the opportunity of working on a film set for a week, on an Angelina Jolie film called Maleficent which I think is currently in pre-production stage, and I know the lengths that people have to go to in order to achieve the perfect shot. I found myself spray painting grass and leaves to make their colours richer; tree branches were removed and reattached so that they’d create a nice frame; moss was glued onto tree trunks; berries and thorns were individually attached to bushes by hands; and we spent three days rearranging turf on a man-made mound in preparation for one shot of a rearing horse. It’s really astonishing how much work is involved for a piece of film that might last for a couple of seconds at most, but that’s nothing compared to the set of Les Misérables. I happen to know a couple of people who worked on the film set and who, I kid you not, spent days varnishing and febreeze-ing clumps of real horse poo (which were then left to dry on the radiator in my mum’s office) to try and make their smell as inoffensive as possible, as so many cast and crew members had complained about the stench of the seaweed used to dress the sets. Someone was genuinely paid to varnish horse poo, and I bet the majority of people watching Les Misérables won’t even notice it’s there, it just adds to the general atmosphere of grime and filth in the streets of Paris.
Anyway, moving on. One of the most enticing things about this film is the list of names attached to it. Loads of hugely successful movie stars had to compete against each other to get a role in the film, and the final cast list is very impressive indeed: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (who were absolutely hilarious in their roles as the Thénardiers, which was really unexpected and delightful), not to mention the number of people who had been involved in the stage shows and were given cameos or small parts, such as Samantha Barks who had previously played Éponine in the West End from 2010-11 and who (I thought) far outshone Amanda Seyfried as Eddie Redmayne’s love interest. Move over Fantine, I think Éponine’s storyline was actually one of the most tugging-at-the-heart-strings storylines, closely rivalled of course by the very-Cockney-sounding little boy who joined the revolution alongside Marius and co., and who started off rather endearingly but did grate on my nerves a bit towards the end.
Now, normally I’m a bit of a weeper when it comes to films, so I was obviously apprehensive because everyone I spoke to said both the stage show and the film versions were really moving (they say ‘moving’, I say ‘depressing’) and I was bound to cry in bucketloads. But I didn’t cry at all, and I think it’s because I couldn’t bring myself to feel any kind of attachment to any of the characters as individuals. Doubtless I’d have been rather morose if Marius had died, but he’s probably the only one I was bothered about (and that was for rather shallow, eye-candy based reasons). Clearly I’m a cruel and heartless person, but I kind of just wanted to tell everyone to man up a bit, and that if they stopped feeling sorry for themselves for a couple of minutes they might actually find a way to improve their situation. I did find the general (few) highs and (mainly) lows of the film quite emotionally exhausting and I did feel like I was becoming emotionally invested in it, just not with any characters in particular. And now I’m going to say something really controversial: I wasn’t that bothered when Fantine died (the biggest teary moment of the film apparently), because I actually found her rather annoying. She was such a drip, I was practically grinding my teeth in frustration. But that’s not to say that Anne Hathaway didn’t do a great job playing her. Obviously she did, otherwise she wouldn’t have managed to rack up so many more awards and nominations than any other cast member. In fact she won a ridiculous amount, including (deep breath): an Academy Award, a British Academy Award, a Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Houston Film Critics Society Award, a London Film Critics’ Circle Award, a New York Film Critics Online Award, a Satellite Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association Award. Good grief, the girl done good! (Even if she did get a bit piercing while singing I Dream a Dream, but then it was all very dramatic and emotional so I suppose we can let her off the occasional wince-inducing moment).
The songs in general were all quite impressive considering that I didn’t know some of these A-listers could even sing, and boy did they belt them out! They were all pretty stirring and rousing, but this was my particular favourite, it made me want to stand on my seat and wave my arms in the air.
Apparently all of the vocals were recorded live/in-scene as well with the orchestral parts added in post-production, which is even more impressive in my book as vocals for musicals are normally pre-recorded and then lip-synched to, but this was all filmed on set with just piano accompaniments in their ear pieces, so well done everyone! The one thing I did find a bit surprising was the fact that everything was sung. Obviously I expected it to be song-heavy, but I thought there would be some dialogue thrown in along the way, and it was a bit odd to hear every single line sung. I suppose it’s easier than trying to create smooth transitions from singing to dialogue, but I do think that dialogue works better in terms of providing subtle exposition, whereas sometimes Jean Valjean and Javert’s filling in the back story about their past lives in song form seemed a bit clumsy.
I also found it quite hard to keep track of when exactly things were happening. This isn’t a fault of the film as such because I expect it was exactly the same in terms of the stage show, but I feel like too large a time period was being covered and I was often at a loss as to which points we’d reached in the time scale. I was confused about how long a period was covered from the time of Fantine’s dismissal to her death, or how long the revolution was meant to go on for. One minute Cosette’s a little girl and the next she’s a grown woman making eyes at Eddie Redmayne, and I just found it a bit hard to keep up at times. But then I expect people who are more familiar with the story than me won’t have any problems in working out what’s happening when.
The film itself was also very long. At two and a half hours, it actually felt like it was even longer but that may just be because I was feeling worn down from all the death and misery. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it because I do love to be depressed by a good film every now and then, but two and a half hours is a long time to endure such an emotional rollercoaster (even if it didn’t induce me to tears). It certainly felt like an epic film in all senses of the word, and must have been super ambitious to make, but I wonder how much it was worth the effort considering that it’s such a well-loved and enduring stage show and so can be constantly reinvented in the theatre. As I said, I haven’t seen the stage show so I don’t know how it compares, but I have a feeling that this will be a film that will massively divide those who are fans of the stage show. I think the film version is meant to be more closely based on the novel (although obviously with the songs from the stage), but I felt so emotionally exhausted after watching the film that I don’t think I can bring myself to read the book to find out!
See also previous Film Review, featuring Iron Man 3.