I Sniggered A Snigger...
...but, oh, readers, it did not end there. Regular partakers of this nonsense may recall that occasionally I like to spice things up by changing the format of the review – doing part of it as a list, or a piece of short fiction, or something else which feels appropriate. And part of me thought that the most apposite way of commenting on Tom Hooper's inescapable Les Miserables would be to write a song about it in suitably sweeping style. But I've got a lot of other work on at the moment, and I couldn't be bothered. It wouldn't sound the same without the full orchestral backing, anyway.
Speaking of which, listening to the BBC's flagship film programme, I caught a snippet of Hooper's film from which the music had been snipped, giving the impression that the actors were singing a cappella. The results were, shall we say, rather amusing in the case of Russell Crowe, not someone for whom a career in musical theatre likely beckons. And so I turned up for the movie well prepared to chuckle and jeer my way through it.
Didn't quite work out that way, though. Based on the stage show, which is based on a novel by Victor Hugo, we open on a gang of convicts working as slave labour in 1815 France. Most prominent is Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), whose surname rhymes with his prison number (good news for the lyricist), who almost straight away is given his parole by merciless cop Javert (Crowe). Valjean has to carry around a document revealing his criminal past or end up straight back in the clink, which makes his life almost intolerable.
However, an act of kindness from a stranger forces Valjean to reconsider his philosophy, and he sets out to become a better person, breaking his parole in the process and revealing that, in addition to possessing tremendous physical strength and a fine tenor voice, he is incapable of facing a moral dilemma without singing about it at great length.
Anyway, some years later the reinvented Valjean is now a prosperous philanthropist – but unfortunately his path crosses that of Javert once more. The policeman vaguely remembers him from somewhere, and soon events conspire to force Valjean to reveal his true identity and go on the run once more: this time in the company of little orphan girl Cosette, whom (for various reasons too lengthy to recount here) he has taken into his protection.
This is a long film with a lot of plot. Suffice to say that later on there is a lot of flag-waving, shooting, crawling through excrement, redemption, unrequited love, and exasperating cor-blimey-guv'nor Cockney accents before everything is resolved. (I'm still not sure what the chorus of hopeful spectres in the final shot are on about. Are they starting a revolution against God, or something? Good luck with that, guys.)
So like I say, I turned up to laugh at the extraordinary hats and hairpieces which pepper the movie, with my usual air of detached indulgence. But then we got to the scene where the kindly old priest (Colm Wilkinson) whom Valjean has tried to rob makes him a gift of everything he's stolen, plus adds a bit more, saying Valjean clearly needs it more than him, and exhorts him to be a better a person... and as a gut-punch of sheer sincere human decency it really takes some beating. Oh! It's so sweet! Cripes.
And then we got to the scene where the innocent single mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway), reduced through no fault of her own to the deepest depths of debasement and despair – we get to see her degradation in some detail – sings a plaintive song about how life hasn't quite worked out how she had hoped... and maybe it's the context, or the song, or the way Hathaway put it over... but suddenly I was losing it and welling up despite myself. I am ashamed to admit it but I was properly weeping in the cinema. (I haven't cried so much since River Song died.) There is some weird power in certain sections of this film that enables it to circumvent your rational brain and interfere directly with your emotions.
Despite this remarkable faculty, there's a lot about Les Mis that I was not particularly struck by. The plot eventually moves on to focus on a bunch of younger characters, mainly lovestruck young girls and floppy-haired student revolutionaries, all of whom were either wet or annoying or both (there's a Cockney urchin living in 1832 Paris whom I would cheerfully have shot even before the revolution started). Amanda Seyfried, playing the female lead, sings with a curiously quavering voice, producing a vibrato effect I found very irksome. Much better, I thought, was Samantha Barks – if big musicals were still a major film genre, this girl would be a global superstar on the strength of her performance here.
I found the plot at this stage less involving and much missed the older characters. I've been rude about Hugh Jackman's acting in the past but this is a part which really fits him like a glove, in terms of his persona, his range, and his singing ability. I even thought Russell Crowe brought a lot to the movie in terms of sheer presence and personality, although hitting some of the notes appears to be causing him significant discomfort. Let's put this in perspective, though – if we're talking about unsuitable A-list stars mooing their way through a musical, our yardstick has got to be Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia!, and Crowe's nowhere near that bad.
But it does seem to go on for a terribly long time, and there's only so much that comedy scenes from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter can do to perk it up a bit. Why is practically the entire thing sung, anyway? It just feels like a stab at opera. I suppose you either like this sort of thing or you don't. The big songs are all great, though, even if towards the end it gets a bit repetitive: it quickly becomes apparent that no-one in this film is capable of dying without literally making a big production number out of it.
There's the funny thing, though. I was sitting there towards the end, stirring a bit restlessly in my seat, wondering how long the damn thing had left to go, as the character in the scene was making a hell of a meal of passing away. 'This movie is so overblown and sentimental in places, and much too long,' I found myself thinking, even while realising at that very moment that I had gone again. The sneaky film had bypassed my rational mind once more.
All praise to Tom Hooper for that, and for the sheer look, scale, and technical achievement of the thing, for all of them are deeply impressive (why on Earth hasn't he been Oscar nominated?). Despite all that, and the intensely powerful moments I've already mentioned, I still think this is a flawed movie in some ways. A monumental piece of work that will be remembered for a long time, but still – for me – easier to admire than to genuinely like.