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15 January 2013

It's Grim Oop Nord

Just before going into Tom Hooper's new film version of Les Misérables this evening I got some good news: I found out that the movie was 40 minutes shorter than I thought, clocking in at a mere 2h35. Despite the good reviews and despite the fact it will probably end up winning Best Picture at the Oscars, I had some serious misgivings, the main one being that I don't like musicals. I go to the cinema for the stories and the characters and I take some convincing to see why an emotion or a plot point that could be conveyed in a line or even a look in a regular movie takes four minutes of song (plus refrains) in a musical.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed Les Mis more than I was expecting to, not least because Hugh Jackman was great as Jon Bon Jovi Jean Valjean, really holding the whole thing together, and because Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit (last seen ditching Serena van der Woodsen in a cowardly fashion after a car crash) provided some aesthetic appeal. Anne Hathaway was also as good as reviews suggested, but she had so little screen time that I couldn't bring myself to feel that sad for her character's (implausibly rapid) demise. Move on, Fantine, we've got plenty more miserables waiting in the wings...

And that brings me to the second issue I have with Les Mis, which isn't specific to this adaptation: it feels too much of a collection of short stories musing on the nature of being poor and wretched in 19th century France. Apart from former prisoner turned hero Valjean and Javert, the policeman who makes it his life's work to be the death of him for reasons that are poorly conveyed or at least that are hidden beneath Russell Crowe's distracting, er, singing voice, there is very little continuity. Let's just say it's best not to get too fond of any of the miserables.

Crowe, of course, is another problem. Throughout the film, you cannot help but wonder why they couldn't have found someone—anyone—who could sing even a little bit. There was some consolation in the final act

***SPOILER ALERT when Javert meets his surprisingly satisfying, if slightly grim, end. ***

Still, the whole film looks very impressive and is beautifully shot. Jackman and Hathaway's physical transformations to play their characters are admirable. Hathaway has to win the crown of Chief Miserable and you got the impression Valjean had drunk some of what Benjamin Button had, given that he looked about 75 as the film opened, and then, eight years later, looked handsome and boyish again. I enjoyed the comic turns from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers, although you did get the impression they had stumbled onto the wrong film set—Carry On Slumming It, perhaps—and the slapstick interludes did jar rather when you were then faced with what was effectively a message saying, "and now back to some misery." Actually, some of the characters annoyed me more when they were being Les Heureux, and making foolish mistakes like falling in love after three and a half seconds (ah hem, Marius).

As for the music, I'm not really the best judge. I think it's slightly unfortunate that all of the best-known songs are in the first half, which meant that every time anyone opened their mouth after that, I was hoping we'd just get on with a bit more plot instead. Personally, I'm not sure that the live singing made much difference, but I'm no music buff. The constant recitative was a little irritating too, although on leaving the cinema I found myself doing it too.

This review may come across as being rather negative, but I did quite enjoy Tom Hooper's film—a lot more than I was expecting to, certainly. There were several good performances and despite its plot:length ratio, I made it two hours in before surreptitiously checking the time, suggesting it's also quite well paced. It wouldn't get my Best Picture vote, but it isn't my least favourite film among the nominees that I've watched either.

At the end of Les Mis I was glad it was finished
But that it isn't to say that it wasn't quite fun...

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