Musicals are a genre of movie that I have very mixed feelings about and therefore I am very particular with regard to which ones I take to heart. I often find original productions far more accessible, than those that adapt existing literary works. Then there is the paradox of stage shows that become films and films that become stage shows. Thus for me, the musical is very much a hit or miss entity, with there seldom being any middle ground. Productions such as Evita and Scrooge represent the former and Quilp and The Lost Horizon the latter. So I didn’t really know what to expect of Les Misérables, other than it seems to have garnered a wealth of Oscar nominations. Something that is not always a guarantee of merit.
Overall I was very impressed with Les Misérables. Despite its prodigious running time (155 minutes) it held my attention with is compelling story and strong performances, both vocally and emotionally. I enjoyed how director Tom Hooper visually interpreted the stage presentation for the more dynamic environment of cinema. He has made a bold choice is deciding to frame a lot of the songs in close and medium shot. Something that not all viewers have warmed to. To contrast this he uses the camera in a very fluid fashion with regard to wider plot exposition. There are several impressive crane shots and flybys of Parisian vistas. There is also no concessions made to soften the harsh world the story is set in. Les Misérables contrast songs of great beauty with scenes of utter squalor and filth.
Where as Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway have received great praise for their singing, Russell Crowe seems to have faced a far more hostile audience. Yet I found his vocal style and interpretation of the character of Javert to be both subdued and engaging. I would also argue that as he is supposed to be the villain of the piece, should his vocal performance not reflect such sensibilities? With regard to the singing per se, for those who may not be aware, Les Misérables is a film whose dialogue is entirely delivered by song. This does not follow the alternative method of spoken dialogue punctuated by song. I did not find this approach an issue but it may wrong foot those who are not prepared.
Considering the complexities of Victor Hugo’s source novel, Les Misérables is condensed and presented in an extremely accessible fashion for the big screen. I was not overtly familiar with the storyline before hand and had no difficulty keeping abreast of the flow of the narrative. However, being the logical being that I am, I did find some of the thematic elements somewhat incongruous, especially in light of modern sensibilities. I appreciate that one needs to consider the prevailing literary notions of the day but they are hard to reconcile with contemporary philosophy. For example the fact that Marius falls passionately in love with Cosette after simply seeing her across a crowded street is entrenched in the romantic culture of the times. Javert’s incapability of reconciling himself to his shattered world view and his subsequent solution to this dilemma also seems very abstract.
I do understand that I am not really the target audience for such a movie as Les Misérables. I am glad that I have seen it and certainly appreciated it’s worth and achievements on several levels. However, I did not fully give myself over to the sentiments of the narrative, because I am very much removed from the mindset in which they framed and explored. Victor Hugo had a traditional Catholic Royalist outlook but subsequently tempered this over the course of his life. The plot is rife with ideas and concepts born of prevailing schools of thought from the time and although I can understand them, I feel little rapport with them.
I wonder how many people will be swept along by the accompanying hype that comes with Les Misérables. I often find that the consensus that often springs up around certain movies, particularly those perceived to be high brow, can draw a wider audience who feel obliged to participate in the latest popular culture phenomenon. Box office returns ultimately just indicate how many people went to see a film and do not necessary ensure that every viewer went home satisfied. Perhaps a true test of the success of the movies adaptation, is whether it inspires more people to see a stage performance or read the original book.
Finally for those who are not too keen on musical adaptations, there was a straight forward dramatisation of the novel in 1998, starring none other than Contains Moderate Peril favourite, Liam Neeson. The film remained relatively faithful to the book with Jean Valjean breaking out of prison with the use of improvised munitions and then subsequently killing most of the Parisian constabulary with his bare hands. He finally has an extended knife fight with Javert (Geoffrey Rush) before breaking his back and driving his head on to a coat hook. The production met with universal praise and Mr. Neeson was applauded for his understated performance.