In This Week: Les Mis – a musical for those who usually avoid them…

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Reviewed by Lally Pollen

So far ‘Les Misérables’ has received an unfair amount of both over-blown praise and bitter criticism. For me, Tom Hooper’s latest project, the first musical film production of Victor Hugo’s classic C19th novel is in one word – patchy. As for words, however, it is deserving of a few more, so let me elaborate.

Desiring to make the film more accessible to those for whom the musical is not the most appealing medium, as well as create a more realistic feel, Hooper had the singing recorded on set. The cast were provided with a piano accompaniment via ear pieces, the orchestration being added afterwards. The result was that the actors had more freedom with the timing and characterisation of their performances than they would have had with the usual pre-record and lip sync method of so many other stage and screen musical productions. The physical and the vocal nuances being perfectly matched, the dubbed-over effect is entirely avoided, allowing for an almost seamless transition between story and song. This method of on-set recording is a solid contribution that leaves room for some of the excellent acting within the film to flourish.

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Not usually a fan of Anne Hathaway, I found myself happily surprised by her quite excellent turn as Fantine. A strong, elegant voice is well matched with her emotional rendition of the mother hard-done-by. Another actor I believe highly deserving of praise is Samantha Barks who plays the grown-up Éponine – an excellent voice. Good casting brought Sasha-Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter together again as the enjoyably wicked innkeepers (last seen together in Tim Burton’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street).

The aesthetic of the film is mostly carried by the impressive set design, which manages to bridge the cinematic look with that of the theatrical. This, however, is let down by the cinematography. With many of the most enjoyable film versions of musicals, the camera work is as inseparable from the music as the characters are from the storyline. With Les Misérables the camera instead hinders the performances, masks the set design and reduces the power of the emotional swell by frequently ignoring the story’s rhythm.

With regard to the casting of the film, Hooper for the most part chose actors over singers. While this may have made the musical more accessible to those who do not, generally speaking, like musicals, it seems a disheartening choice for those who do love them, particularly for singing enthusiasts. A shame considering the excellent, unusual and hopefully influential method of on-set sound recording.

While casting non-singers was not a problem regarding certain roles, for example Baron-Cohen and Bonham-Carter who provided the much-needed comic relief, (similarly the revolutionary leaders, Hathaway and Barks) it was problematic for the roles of Valjean and Javert, both of whom have powerful, emotionally delicate and vocally demanding songs which are key to the projection of plot and the rollercoasting power of the music.

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Neither Jackman or Crowe had the appropriate range needed for these roles. While excellent on Broadway in his role as Curly in Oklahoma, which demands a strong, deeper voice, Jackman does not have the vocal control needed for songs such as ‘Bring Him Home’. Whilst, Crowe having proved his proficiency in acting many times before, could not meet the demands of Javert’s moving solos.
The music of Les Misérables is, more than most musicals, heavily operatic in style. The long sustained notes and somewhat challengingly wide range demanded of some of the roles are just a few of the techniques that help carry the emotional weight and swell of the story. Again with the intention of appeasing the anti-musical audience, Hooper cuts short the lengthy operatic style notes and casts actors uncomfortable in the necessary ranges. The result is a repeatedly anti-climactic tone to many of the scenes.
Overall I could not entirely enjoy this version of Les Misérables and would rather see the stage version any time. I do however believe that Hooper’s film could have a highly influential effect on the recording techniques of future musical film projects. Die-hard fans of Schönberg’s musical will, I am sure, be curious to compare the difference in priorities of this production to the original. It is to those not usually partial to musicals, however, that I would recommend Les Misérables. It is for them, it would seem, that Hooper has made this film.