Thursday, 17 January 2013

FILM REVIEW: Les Misérables (2012)

Si's Sights And Sounds has a soft spot for the musical version of Victor Hugo's famous novel - to date, it is the only musical our writer has seen in London's West End. Hence we've decided to do something a little different with our review of the film...

For the very first time at Si's Sights And Sounds, we've invited a special guest reviewer to share his or her opinion on the "work of art" being reviewed. Today, we welcome the thoughts of arguably the biggest Les Misérables fan in Derry-Londonderry, avid musical lover (and aspiring stage star!) Amy Astbury.

Read on as Si and Amy compare and contrast their views. (Spoilers ahead.)

Si: As just about every fan of musicals and classic literature knows, Les Misérables (or Les Mis) tells the story in song of Jean Valjean, played on screen by Hugh Jackman. After stealing a loaf of bread condemns Valjean to almost two decades’ worth of imprisonment, he breaks his parole and decides to make a new name for himself, even as Russell Crowe’s persistent Inspector Javert is on his track. Two more decades on and Valjean, under a new name, is prospering as both a mayor and businessman; that is, until he makes the decision to take Cosette, the child of Anne Hathaway’s dying whore Fantine, under his wing and raise her. Further complications abound when Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult) grows up and falls for Eddie Redmayne’s revolutionary Marius, who Eponine (Samantha Barks, reprising her role from the West End) admires from afar; all while a city uprising and Javert's dogged pursuit of Valjean continue.

(Addressing Amy) Adapting a musical to the big screen can be a really tricky business. Do you think Tom Hooper, relatively fresh off his success with The King's Speech, manages to pull it off?

Special Guest Reviewer
Amy Astbury
Amy: I think that he has done a truly stunning job. If you go to watch the film expecting to see the stage version then you're going to be let down. You kind of need to go with a clear head. You learn so much more from the film than you do from the stage musical, and the sets look great too.

Si: I'll add that I've always liked the familial relationships that develop between mentor and pupil in his films, and how the central characters face their antagonists; think Brian Clough and Peter Taylor vs. Don Revie in The Damned United, or Bertie and Lionel vs. Edward in The King's Speech.  He's done it again here with Valjean and Marius vs. Javert, except he’s not working from as good a script here, which is to his detriment. I don't doubt he has a vision, he's just not a strong enough auteur, in my eyes, to pull it off. To me, his techniques – repeated close-ups, live singing and almost no spoken dialogue – become a little wearing after a while. I don't think he knows whether to make a Sweeney Todd or a Mamma Mia...

Amy: I actually think that the close-ups are really effective, especially during "I Dreamed A Dream". They give you a better insight into the characters' expressions. I also think that the singing technique – live, with the actors wearing earpieces with a piano track to keep them in time with the music, which the orchestra then record over in post-production – is quite successful. That's a very good thing, as the singing is one of the most important elements of any musical film and can easily fall flat.

Si: I see what you mean, but I believe the close-ups would work better in smaller doses.

Amy: Yeah... I still prefer the stage musical, there's no doubt about that! In my opinion, no musical film can compare to live theatre.

Anne Hathaway dreams a dream...
Si: You mentioned "I Dreamed A Dream"... what do you make of Anne Hathaway? She's become a personal favourite of mine these days; probably the most improved actress of the decade, in my opinion. I think she really relishes every moment she is on screen, and recognises what makes the aforementioned song truly work.

Amy: I think she is flawless! Fantine is one of my favourite roles in this show and Hathaway absolutely steals it. When she sings "I Dreamed A Dream", I would defy anyone to keep a dry eye, for it is so heart-wrenching and you cannot help but feel sorry for her! She definitely makes the most out of her limited screen time; you can tell she's putting her heart and soul into it!

Si: I would add that she shows an aching vulnerability that’s not quite welcome on stage. Theatre audiences want something a bit more "booming", "in your face", whereas on screen things must be more expressive. Hathaway nails that.

Amy: I agree! And I must also say that the moment we see Cosette through Fantine's dying eyes is both beautiful and heartbreaking; it's one of my favourite things about the film.

Si: What about Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe? I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by both. The film never feels like Wolverine vs. Maximus...

Amy: Crowe has had probably the most mixed response. He obviously isn’t the greatest singer, but I think the casting definitely works. His presence and expressions are just right and him and Jackman play off one another very well!

Si: Though Jackman does butcher "Bring Him Home". He should have sung it in Key F.

Amy: I agree!

Javert vs. Valjean
Si: Yeah, it made me squirm. But apart from that...

Amy: I think Jackman is a great Valjean. He is tough, yet compassionate and definitely understands how to play it. And his singing is reasonably good too, even though, as you said, "Bring Him Home" is a struggle... his rendition just isn't strong enough.

Si: One rendition that is more than strong enough was Samantha Barks' "On My Own" (listen below). I really like Barks; her Eponine comes across as truly genuine. I do wish she had more screen time, though; her death doesn't carry the impact it should.

Amy: Yeah, she doesn’t get enough time! It is also annoying that the filmmakers cut some of "A Little Fall Of Rain" and make her death look like a sacrifice. Still, her portrayal really moves me. And I think she deserves more recognition than she is actually getting, compared to Amanda Seyfried who I don't really like in this film.

Si: You too? To me, Seyfried has always been a little flat. She isn't right for Cosette. Brings back uncomfortable memories of Mamma Mia! Eponine is far more appealing.

Amy: To be honest, I've always felt Cosette was a rather dull character and I fear she still is in this film, which is less down to Seyfried than to the role itself. She makes a good stab at it, I suppose, but I’m not keen on her voice. I feel it's a bit weak.

Si: As is her chemistry with Eddie Redmayne's Marius.

Amy: Indeed, although I think Redmayne is quite a good Marius. His portrayal of "Empty Chairs And Empty Tables" is very well done.

Si: I've been critical of the director, but I've got to give him this; he made Sacha Baron Cohen actually funny again! "Master Of The House" is kind of like Sweeney Todd in its execution.

Amy: Yeah! The Thernadiers (Cohen, and Helena Bonham Carter), I think you can agree, provide the much needed comic relief in the show! And the whole "Master Of The House" sequence is done brilliantly.

Si: In closing; any other things you really enjoy about the film?

Amy: So many; the new song, "Suddenly", the fact that they didn't cast all well known actors, and that so many well-known West End actors, including the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, are included. We can't forget Isabelle Allen either, who's amazing as the young Cosette, or Tom Huddlestone, who plays Gavroche; his acting and singing skills are worthy of someone well beyond his years!