First, I want to pin my colours to the mast: I love Les Miserables. I have read the book, seen the theatre production at least four times now, and really enjoyed the film. But. Yeah, there was inevitably going to be a ‘but’, so I’ll start with the positives.
- The scenery was wonderful. I have read reviews which criticized the size of the barricade, but this was one of the most pitiful, brief and utterly overpowered revolutions in the recorded history of the period. Of course it was small! The shipyard during the prologue was fantastic, as were the ever increasing hordes of desperate poor in Paris.
- I really liked the fact that the director had clearly gone back to Hugo’s original work to draw out some of the details. Marius’ rich background, for example, or Valjean and Cosette taking shelter in the convent, aren’t covered in the musical theatre version. Well done, Tom Hooper.
- The results of filming whilst singing, rather than pre-recording the music, were very interesting. Hugh Jackman had the odd duff note but he was really acting the words of the song, rather than just singing them, and so they sounded raw and fresh to me. Ditto Anne Hathaway, who did a marvelous job. Russell Crowe, on the other hand, never dropped a note but also seemed to do rather less acting. Despite loving the music and having excellent relative pitch, I found myself preferring the slightly wobbly but more invested delivery.
- Disparaging comments about Crowe aside, there were a couple of moments where he brought a touch of humanity to Javert which is not that easy to do. Gavroche and the medal, for instance. It’s the little things which make a character real.
- I’m really pleased that Colm Wilkinson was involved. That was somehow satisfying.
Okay, on to the ‘but’. It isn’t a bad ‘but’, per se, just an observation of change. Victor Hugo first published in 1862, and the fashion for story structure has moved on somewhat since then. Books with massive named casts, multiple large time gaps and a switch between protagonists (Marius sort of takes over the limelight in the second half) are much less common now. Not unknown – Game of Thrones is an obvious exception – but not the normal popular style. To my modern sensibilities, the film of Les Mis seemed like a sprawling jumble that kept jumping about. Which is slightly odd because I never had that reaction to the theatre production. I can think of two possible reasons:
- I’ve been doing a lot more analytical studying of story composition over the last year, and am therefore perhaps more critical of structure than I was when I last saw the play.
- The staging of Les Mis is pretty minimalist, plus suspension of disbelief is already high due to the theatre restrictions of any play. Revolutionary France is hard to phys rep in the West End. It’s possible, therefore, that the viewer is more willing to accept that kind of jumping around since their mind is being pretty flexible anyway. In contrast, we expect films to deliver every little detail so there isn’t a great deal of prepped mental flexibility.
I don’t know – it’s just a theory. And I still cried.