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Film review: Les Miserables**
It opens like a Jason Bourne movie, the camera underwater and staring at the underside of a floating object; then it thrusts upwards, breaks the surface and just keeps soaring, craning up and up to reveal dozens of prisoners waist-deep in dirty water. “Look down, look down,” sing these poor wretches glumly, staking their claim as the most disgruntled gang of extras to open a major musical since the workhouse boys grumbling “All we ever get is gru-u-uel” in Oliver!. Everyone sings in Les Miserables, a stolid adaptation that’ll probably please fans of the (hugely successful) show despite a certain woolliness and a deadly-dull second half.
Serious question: why does no-one mention how front-loaded this thing is? The first half has all the compelling dilemmas and strong characters – especially Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), locked in a decades-spanning game of cat-and-mouse, though also Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an abused victim whose suffering verges on the Dickensian. There’s a rather hilarious moment when she’s dying on a hospital bed, wails “Cosette, it’s turned so cold…” then gives a couple of small, bronchial coughs – though Hathaway also sinks her teeth into ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, the show’s best-known song, shot in a single close-up by director Tom Hooper. Hathaway’s emoting in this all-too-obvious show-stopper is pure theatrical ham – she breathes hard, she bites her lip, she shakes her head, she bats her eyes – but she’s such an expressive actress she gets away with it. People are talking Oscar, and despite the brevity of the role (really just an extended cameo) few would begrudge her.
That’s in the first half, however, an hour or so that also includes young Cosette (Fantine’s daughter) warbling the lovely ‘Castle on a Cloud’, a female chorus of factory workers singing ‘At the End of the Day’, and the comic-relief duo of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen doing the rollicking ‘Master of the House’. Above all, that’s the hour when Valjean grows as a person, learning kindness in response to kindness, his morality contrasted with Javert’s inflexible code. The film is sung from beginning to end, and much of it is doggerel (“Come on ladies, settle down / I’m the mayor of this town”) – but the combination of perky rhymes and didactic melodrama is at least entertaining.
The second half, however, is disastrous, at least in my opinion. (I saw the stage show years ago but it made no impression, so maybe I’m just not the target audience.) We fast-forward to Cosette all grown up, played by the ever-bland Amanda Seyfried. Paris is gripped by revolution (though not the Revolution), and Cosette falls for a youthful firebrand (Eddie Redmayne). The young lovers are dull, the characters flat and perfunctory, little Gavroche – the emblem of the people’s resistance – deeply annoying. The big musical medley, ‘One Day More’, is impossible to take seriously after the South Park movie spoofed it so adroitly as ‘La Resistance’. Above all, the moral dilemmas of the first half disappear, replaced by empty spectacle and a vague meaningless populism.
Les Miserables is a film about class, that early “Look down” being both how convicts must comport themselves and how polite society views them. That’s what Javert stands for, the belief that people don’t change and there’s always ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ – unlike the revolution, which stands for equality. Hooper pulled this same simplistic trick in The King’s Speech, a film where king and commoner bonded as equals – and it’s obviously a worthy message but not really relevant to Valjean’s moral journey, which has more to do with forgiveness and charity. The second half dilutes that journey, doing the film a disservice; the grand finale, when we go from our hero at the end of his life to a final, rousing “Do you hear the people sing?” feels strangely disjointed.
Still, I guess this is half of a good film – though I must admit I was longing for it to end about 40 minutes before it actually did. The actors sing live (i.e. don’t mime to playback), allegedly because the story has ‘emotional depth’, but (a) it doesn’t, and (b) even if it did, actors can express emotion better when they don’t have to worry about carrying a tune. That’s especially true of Crowe, who looks like he’s having to concentrate all his muscles on singing; his stiffness isn’t inappropriate for Javert, but it’s still stiffness. Elsewhere, Baron Cohen seems to be channelling Fagin (more shades of Oliver!), Hooper’s staging favours flamboyant touches like putting Crowe on the edge of a rooftop looking out over Notre-Dame, and the songs seek ever more creative ways of rhyming ‘Javert’ (possible favourite: “There is nothing on earth that we share / It is either Valjean or Javert!”). They’re not even songs, for the most part, just catchy one-line melodies repeated over and over. “It’s better than an opera,” say Redmayne’s revolutionary friends, speaking of his romantic troubles – but Les Miserables is exactly like an opera, only pumped up and dumbed down. The camera soars; the film mostly doesn’t.
DIRECTED BY Tom Hooper
STARRING Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Anne Hathaway
UK 2012 157 mins