Wednesday, 9 January 2013


Director Tom Hooper has already proven with The King's Speech that he has a knack for getting often maligned demographics watching in droves. Last time it was fervent royalists and fans of old-style character drama but now he turns his attention to a paragon of hugely popular musical theatre and the sizeable following it has garnered in its three decades on stage.

This is a musical, although not one in which our heroes go about their business as normal but burst into song at regular intervals. There are no intervals, just as there is not a shred of dialogue between the songs and there is certainly no dancing to accompany them. It’s all songs, all the time and it takes a degree of adjustment to get used to the sung-through style, as it is technically known - even more so because nearly every other aspect of this period drama is played deadly straight. However, if you are familiar with the stage musical, rather than Victor Hugo’s original novel, you will have known to expect exactly that.

France, 1815: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is introduced as a prisoner doing hard labour where he is presided over by the officious, commanding Javert (Russell Crowe). Upon release, Valjean asserts he will start anew and that is when we see him again in 1823 where he is a prosperous merchant under an assumed name but still living in fear of discovery by the dogged Javert.

In tandem with Valjean’s story, we meet Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a lowly worker in his employ who has troubles of her own. She is in need of money and working to support her daughter Cosette, who is looked after by the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Tragedy begets tragedy and characters’ lives cross paths, impacting on each other as they go. All the while the gathering storm of the Paris Uprising of 1832 looms ever-ominously on the horizon.

While the musical genre might suggest sweetness and light, this is authentically grotty. The Hollywood good looks of the actors are buried beneath browning teeth, blotchy skin and unflattering hairstyles. The set design of an impoverished Paris is a meisterwerk of dilapidated beauty and Hooper shows that his penchant for chipped paintwork extends beyond just royal therapy rooms.

While none of the singing reaches a Pierce Brosnan level of awfulness, the commitment to hiring actors rather than singers is admirable but does not always pay off. The style of the film favours performance over musical talent, which is a blessing to those unfamiliar with musicals as no other leeway is given to help follow the threads of the plot. It is possible to discern the story from the powerhouse acting when it might be otherwise unattainable through song.

Hugh Jackman is a seasoned musical performer but even he looks silly trying to earnestly hold a grave conversation in back-and-forth warbles. Russell Crowe gives it some gusto but his towering voice fails to convince across the multiple, multi-character, multi-location numbers. The entire style is constantly jarring. What might look fine within the more obviously artificial confines of a stage sits ill at ease with the scope of film.

All the most successful musical moments occur during less complex one singer, one song scenes. The zenith of these occurs early on as Anne Hathaway performs a tearful, single take rendition of the musical's most famous song, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. It is filmed in a tight, face-framing close-up, which immediately recalls the music video for Sinéad O'Connor's ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’. It is dripping with raw emotion and goes some way to vindicate the decision to favour acting performance over the ability to hold a note or belt out a pin-sharp duet.

That said, the jaunty but incongruous ‘Master of the House’, performed by Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter, is a joy to behold. Both characters are grotesques and make the most of it, leering and grimacing their way through every double entendre and theatrical pratfall. Bonham Carter almost exactly reprises her role from Sweeney Todd while Baron Cohen’s ridiculously Gallic vocal turn begs the question why he is the only one who seems to be trying to appear remotely French.

What begins as a small-scale personal tale of injustice and persecution is undercut by the film’s exhausting timeframe spanning countless characters and seventeen years, plus back-story. Two thirds of the way through it completely shifts focus and expects us to care about the blossoming love between a grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), two characters we have barely been introduced to let alone seen interact with each other in any meaningful way. It is such a volte face that it dramatically lessens Valjean's plight just at the point when his arc should be building to a climax. There is so much to fit in that minor characters suffer. Both Cosette and the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks) are underused and fail to make an impact in an undercooked love triangle.

The sweep of it is grand but the effect is stultifying. It just about holds its intensity amongst the narrative disarray of the overlong second half but is blighted by the need to satisfy fans of the musical by keeping in as much from the source as possible at the expense of a streamlined plot.

Unless you get pleasure from holding a lilting conversation about the finer points of the 19th Century French judicial system, the songs are not tuneful or simple enough to sing along to (except, of course, if you already know them back-to-front). The style of this particular musical is an acquired taste but the gritty, epic look of it is worthy compensation.

Hooper is a director who knows his audience and crafts a much-loved phenomenon into something rousing but flawed. He might not be the most revolutionary director but his use of minimal gimmickry to let emotion rule the story when required is groundbreaking in a film of this scale. The restraint he shows is unfortunately front-loaded in the narrative and the whole is visually stunning but at risk of being suffocated by excess.


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