I should probably start with a disclaimer. I have never seen Les Miserables: the stage musical. I saw the non-singing film many moons ago, but all I really remember from it is Uma Thurman carking it. For a gay man with a strong penchant for tortured women belting out melodramatic tunes, I’m surprisingly ambivalent about musicals on the whole. There are some I like, but more that I don’t. In many ways, this film was not aimed at me.
With all that being said, I went in with an open mind and – thanks to the generally strong reviews – reasonably high expectations. This optimism did not last. I genuinely believe that, had anyone filmed me watching the Les Miserables movie, the resulting footage would have been a medically sound case study of a man slowly losing his mind. For the first 45 minutes I was upright, alert and engaged. Ooh, epic cityscapes, lots of extras, some drama with a kindly preist! Around the one hour mark I was starting to fidget uncomfortably – God these songs just keep on coming, don’t they? Oh God not Eddie Redmayne. I miss Anne, bring back Anne. – Enter the final third and I am slumped, physically clawing at my seat, such is my desperation for the sheer droning horror to come to an end. During Russel Crowe’s climactic song about twenty minutes from the end, I actually found myself involuntarily – but very audibly – hissing “OH JUST DIE!” at the screen. Thankfully it was a late night screening and nobody was sitting near me, or I may well have been escorted from the premises, weeping and confessing to crimes I’d never committed.
Much has been made of the live singing element of the film. Obviously somebody who bears as much affection as I do for the Eurovision Song Contest has quite a thick skin when it comes to questionable live vocals – and for the most part I didn’t notice any obvious howlers. The problem was that while seasoned stage performers like Jackman can effortlessly hit the glory notes while striking the right emotional chords as well, the less natural performers were hamstrung by having to concentrate on too many things at once. Russel Crowe was trying so hard not to sing badly, he neglected to do any actual acting. Every scene he was in was rendered dramatically inert by the fact that he just sort of stands there, brow furrowed with intense concentration, a big hairy dramatic black hole, sucking the life out of everything around him. It’s kind of an astonishing negative achievement that you can put a man who in real life throws telephones at underlings for fun in a key villainous role, and direct him in a way that makes him seem about as threatening as a terrified pubescent schoolboy auditioning for his first am-dram production.
Eddie Redmayne is an actor whose appeal just escapes me entirely. I found him totally off-putting in My Week With Marilyn and not much better here. Not to be cruel, but I think it’s his face. I can see why his distinctive featured led to a lucrative modelling career, but his default expression seem to be that of a startled haddock, Also he sings like a character from an early episode of South Park, which makes it difficult to take him seriously. The second half of the film hinges on the supposed burning love his character Marius feels for Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), but the pivotal ‘love at first sight’ scene is completely botched, making no impact whatsoever. This combined with Redmayne’s charmless performance makes the last 90 minutes of the film akin to a long, slow death by a thousand Barbara Cartland novels.
As for Amanda Seyfried herself, she might as well not even bothered turning up. You have to feel for her really; for the second time in her career she’s been cast in a major event movie and been given absolutely naff all to do. Considering her character is the driving force behind pretty much everything that the other characters do in the film, it’s astonishing what a complete non-presence she is in the film. Seyfried’s total screen time must amount to about 20 minutes at most, and she doesn’t even get a decent song to perform. This strikes me as a major structural flaw because at no point do you even remotely care about whether she ends up with Marius, or whether ValJean succeeds in keeping her safe.
To give credit where it’s due, Hugh Jackman is very good, although after the first 15 minutes he’s so unremittingly pious that in places it’s just a diddley away from being ‘Ned Flanders: The Musical’. It’s hard to warm to unwaveringly moral characters – in real life ValJean would be that guy in the office who sends sad-toned emails about timesheet infractions and non-standardised fonts. He’s a massive drag. But Jackman is a seasoned musical theatre veteran and he wrings every last drop of credibility from the terrible material he has to work with.
Anne Hathaway is also great, and she’ll deserve her inevitable Oscar. Her much remarked upon rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is every bit as good as it’s cracked up to be – although given she made such an effort to slim down from merely Hollywood skinny to nearly-dead, she could at least have asked the makeup team to do something with her teeth. Playing an impoverished french prostitute, bruised, bloodied and shaven-headed, her incongruously dazzling white gnashers are highly distracting in the near close-up that makes up her glory moment. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen provide blessed comic relief, but do appear to have been dropped in from an entirely different movie (Sweeney Todd basically, as they both more or less reprise their respective performances from that).
Mostly though, the film just goes on and on and on and on and on, and while it’s heavy on incident, the combination of flat direction, indifferent acting and endless reprises of the same bloody songs (every time some variation of the line “who am I, am am… VALJEAN!” was crowbarred in i simultaneously chuckled and died a little bit inside) made the running time feel like water torture. I’m aware writing this review that a lot of my issues with the film are issues with the form – the singing of every line of dialogue, the as-live vocals, the thin plotting. If you’re a big fan of the stage play (which I now never, ever want to see), you may well love it. Don’t let me put you off. But please, for the love of all things holy, don’t take me with you.