I love musicals. They generally have polarizing effects: you either love them or hate them. Les Mis\xe9rables takes the polarity to a whole new level. Before going in to watch this film, you must ask yourself one question: How much do you want to watch people in misery singing constantly for 2 and a half hours? No really, there are almost no dialogues. It is all singing. They are also sung live as opposed to being dubbed later. How much do you want to see that? You don't need to have knowledge of cinema, but only that of your own taste. Good or bad taste is not the point.
Les Mis\xe9rables is a cinematic version of the long-running and much loved West End/Broadway musical which is based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. I absolutely loved this film. If I had to pick one reason why, it would be that the response it asks from the audience in almost each scene is solely emotional. We aren't given information about character or plot. It only works with our emotions; character and plot emerge through it, not outside it. By this I don't mean it asks us to cry in each scene but that the film is not an intellectual experience. It isn't perfect and I don't think I care whether it should be or not. I care about spirit and passion.
There are musicals like The Sound of Music (1965), West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and even the more recent Chicago (2002), which just deliver the goods in the most traditional way possible. Then there are others like Moulin Rouge! (2001), Sweeney Todd (2007) and Across The Universe (2007). The two films I can draw direct parallels with are The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971). The former is a French film where all the dialogues are sung-through. It is a brave film, one of the best and most radical musicals ever made. Fiddler on the Roof, if it were made today would be getting as many critical pans as Les Mis\xe9rables is bound to get. I'm glad The Umbrellas of Cherbourg didn't get a major release and wasn't in the English language and remains cherished only by true lovers. These films refuse to be typical movie musicals. Les Mis\xe9rables leans towards the second category.
Tom Hooper's visual choices are a grand technical achievement. It is consciously epic and oddly intimate with shades of gritty realism. The tools used are the close up, the wide-lenses and the edge of frame. I was not particularly fond of his previous directorial effort - The King's Speech (2010) but it was clear as day that the blocking of the actors within the composed shots was deliberate. Almost half the frame was empty and the actor invaded only one side of it. It did not seem jarring to most (to me it did) as it went with the thematic elements of the story. This is heightened to another degree here. While they are jarring again, I did not mind them as I wished the characters would indeed fall off the edge, on to a better fate.
Then there is the close up. I can tell you this much, I don't remember the last film I saw which was conscious of the power of the image of the human face and the depth of emotion it can project. The best use of this is clearly the one-take â€œI Dreamed A Dreamâ€ song sequence owned by Anne Hathaway who should deservedly walk away with each award. There is another similarly effective moment given to Samantha Barks' rendition of â€œOn My Ownâ€. Even the harshest detractors cannot ignore these two performances. They are â€œobviouslyâ€ great.
Hugh Jackman is the soul of the film. He is the valiant Valjean who leads his cast to musical bombast. The biggest surprise for me was Eddie Redmayne. "Empty Chairs and Empty Tables" stirred me. I can't believe he isn't getting more awards traction. I also found Russell Crowe's portrayal of Javert largely satisfactory. He is clearly not the best singer of the lot but I've heard worse. I was surprised by how much I liked his two solos (especially â€œStarsâ€) and the way they are shot, mirroring each other. Hooper makes sure he must open up the stage musical but only so much. I'm referring to a few shots where the camera cranes up, especially the one near the opening after "Valjean's Soliloquy" with a dead leaf escaping to the heavens. They show Hooper's command on the narrative by choosing specific points to exhibit them.
Les Mis\xe9rables is in no way a failure. Yes the film is long and it tests your love/ hate. Apart from the songs mentioned above, my favorite song performances ranged from the fervent "Bring Him Home" to the literally heartbreaking "A Little Fall of Rain" to "One Day More" which comes smack in the middle of the narrative stringing everyone's fates together and then the stunning "Epilogue". The finale is a triumph. It goes from a good musical to a great one with its rousing conclusion. Take a bow, Tom Hooper and the cast.view less