Back in a former life, before Film Phage was born, I actually worked in the record industry. I scouted bands on a national and international basis for a rather large record label. As such, I’ve got a pretty discerning ear for music. Most music. And if I had started a music site, it’d be called Phonic Phage. Maybe one day we’ll mutate into that, so hands off the name – same for Flick Phage if I ever decide to start reviewing books! All that being said, nothing terrifies me more than the prospect of a musical film. I don’t even like it when someone sings a solitary song in an otherwise tuneless film, so with that weighing heavily on my mind I headed out to see Les Misérables…
As I say, I’m no musical film fan. I remember seeing Sweeney Todd a few years ago and being mortified by the endless churning out of songs! Even my great love of all things Matt Stone and Trey Parker was tested with South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, which featured a whole slew of songs. Some enjoyable, some less so. But saying that, I’m not averse to musical theatre and I’ll be one of the first to see The Book of Mormon when it hits the UK in a couple of months… but me and musical films? An entirely different kettle of fish.
Before seeing Les Misérables I was ready to write this off. For me, Hugh Jackman is Wolverine and not Jean Valjean, Russell Crowe is Maximus Decimus Aurelius and not Javert and Anne Hathaway is now Catwoman and not Fantine. And Sacha Baron Cohen? Well, his role’s pretty accurate: bizarre. And certainly none of them sing. Wolverine certainly doesn’t sing. But the film caught me off guard… Although I may have checked my watch a couple of times.
So, a real summary? Essentially, Wolverine / Jackman / Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread and is jailed / enslaved for an illogical length of time in revolutionary France. He’s overseen by Gladiator / Crowe / Javert – an Inspector who swears to monitor Valjean for the rest of his life to make sure he doesn’t reoffend. But Valjean flees. And does quite well for himself after changing his name – a total character reformation. But Javert never gives up – he’s a lot like Wile E. Coyote constantly chasing that roadrunner. Or General Ross who constantly chases The Hulk. He’s remorseless. There are also several subplots woven in here to add more songs. You’ve got Anne Hathaway‘s impoverished quest to get money for her daughter (who’ll become Amanda Seyfried) who’s in the care of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Oh, and you’ve got the whole French Revolution underclass being led by Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
OK, a tough plot to summarise, I’ll concede that. That’d be why it’s a three hour West End / Broadway musical then, split up into three acts. As someone who has no clue about what happens, I found Les Misérables particularly interesting and the plot intrigued me. I was dubious of how Hathaway‘s somewhat short time on screen could tally with all the praise and awards she’s been nominated for / received. But that dubiousness evaporated pretty sharply… Wow…
Much fuss has been made of the singing calibre of the cast. Praise has been rightfully doled onto Jackman, who is fantastic as Valjean – he really sells you every emotion that his character feels throughout the film. And Valjean has some major highs and lows in his life. However, less praise has been given to Russell Crowe as Jalvert. Some are saying his singing is awful, out of key etc. etc. However, I’m going to go on record as saying I thought Crowe was perhaps my highlight of the film. I loved his character and just think he conveyed it brilliantly. I’m no thespian, and my talent scouting days are from more popular music genres, but I still thought he brought the goods. I’m a fan of Crowe in general though. He’s often mocked, but I still hold him in high regard. In my eyes he’s on par with Jackman here. Maybe less emotional, but certainly as entertaining.
The other roles? They all do their part. I need to of course focus back onto Anne Hathaway. She looked incredibly distraught and beaten down and really sold me her plight with stark emotion, but she was somewhat “absent” from most of the movie, as fans of the musical will be well aware. Cohen also merits mention for providing some great comic relief. His accent lurches from horny Frenchman to cockney geezer to Ali G, but he definitely plays his role with aplomb.
What was slightly more confusing is the choice of extras / minor parts. Why were all of the peasants in revolutionary France either from Yorkshire in the north of England, or from the east end of London? Yet all of the middle class were clearly from somewhere around Hertfordshire. I found it quite laughable that they still use northern accents / cockneys to play the impoverished. Some of the singing sounded like a track from the British punk band Gallows (see below for a great, aptly-titled, tune).
That wasn’t my only gripe either. I mentioned earlier how I was checking my watch. The film is simply too long winded in places. Its run time pushes 2 hours and 40 minutes, so it tests your resolve. If you love the stage version of Les Misérables then you’ll surely see time fly by. But for everyone else? Well, let’s just say that the third act drags quite a bit. Further to this, I just found some of the filming techniques a little dull at times. A lot of emphasis has been placed on the close up of the person singing. That’s great… but this is a film, and not a stage musical. I don’t need to see every mouth movement. I want to see the scene and put it in context. Films have such a large budget for a reason… use it.
Having said that, Les Misérables was a pleasant surprise. I didn’t think I’d stay awake for the entire film, let alone enjoy it. I think a good deal of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I’ve no prior exposure to the plot, so as a film lover I could enjoy where events would take us next. The singing was just “there” in my eyes. Yes yes, it’s all delivered live to film and it worked well, but that wasn’t the reason I enjoyed the film. And I really think more credit needs to be given to Russell Crowe – people are being too snobbish about his performance. He’s an actor. A damn fine one. He’s not a musician.
So whilst my past is shrouded in mystery, you now know me as The Phage that used to dabble in music: the Phonic Phage. But much like Jean Valjean I’ve been on the run from my past for too long. It’s good to have it out in the open. But what I won’t do is sing a merry little song about it. For two hours. Because although I enjoyed Les Misérables, I hope Hollywood doesn’t jump on the bandwagon of making all musicals into films. It’s not a two way street, nor should it be! Just look at poor Spider-Man!