Les Miserables – Film v Theatre
Ever since I can remember, Les Miserables has been a part of my life – many of my childhood memories include singing ‘Castle on a Cloud’, watching the 10th anniversary concert on DVD, and most exciting of all was going to see the show in the West End. So as you can imagine, as word got out that there was going to be a huge film adaptation by The King’s Speech director, Tom Hooper, myself and my family were unable to contain our excitement.
Now, before I can possibly hope to outline my thought processes throughout the film, there are some things you must understand. I’ve seen the London show four times and watched the concert DVD countless amount of times. (This is nowhere near as impressive as my Grandad’s 20 something visit to the West End.) The main reasons why I love the show are:
1. The music – absolutely magnificent songs beautifully orchestrated. The singers are frighteningly talented and sing with such expression and emotion. The orchestral music is powerful enough to nearly knock you off your seat, yet that harp accompinament to Stars or the oboe solo for Bring Him Home can send shivers down your spine (and tears down your cheeks).
2. The impressive set and powerful staging – that feeling of dread when the barricade rotates and reveals all the dead…
3. The pure brilliance of the story and the characters – what a beautiful story of a man who turned his life around but is still haunted by his past, with those fantastic characters such as the Thenadiers as great additions to the story.
Yes, I understand that film is different to theatre in many ways, but when the adaptation is so close to the original musical, it is just begging for a comparison – and I’m afraid to say, you messed with the wrong show.
One thing that the film did get so right was the opening. When that music burst out – DA DUN.. DUN DA DUNNNN!!!!!! – with the ambitious set of the ship being hauled in by prisoners almost drowning in water, I did feel completely overwhelmed in my cinema seat. In fact, I remained impressed throughout the first half hour, or so. But soon came the many aspects that got my blood boiling and my face burning with rage, which I’m sure wasn’t the intended reaction.
The crew made a risky decision to stay extremely close to the original script. The plot was identical (very wise), and all characters seemed to use very similar lines, until… here comes a famous quote… Hang on.. What? ‘Shut your mouth, or I’ll forget to be nice’? Or ‘On your way’ said casually, with a shrug of the shoulder? They might as well have changed Jean Valjean’s prison number to 24603. To me, it felt like tiny things were changed just for the sake of variety and to not copy the stage musical – but it is stepping into dangerous territory when you change the very things that people have grown to know and love.
Yes, the sets were great and on screen, it all worked very well. But in this technically advanced age of film, it’s not enough to stand out, unlike the stage musical where a great set can light up the theatre. Nevertheless, the crew cannot have done anything more in this area so I’ll let them off this one.
I do, however, have to mention my dislike for the cinematography. You know that a mistake has been made when you notice the camera movement. Instead of being completely inside the story of the film, there were moments when I drifted into thoughts about the strange camera movements. Thoughts such as ‘Look how much Jean Valjean is suffering’ were replaced by ‘look at how the camera is just moving back and forth in Hugh Jackman’s face.’ And they have taken close-up’s to a whole new level. I felt like I wanted to walk back a few steps so that I could actually work out what I was looking at. Obviously, it was not trying to be slick and stylish like a Danny Boyle film, but still managed to be distracting from the narrative.
If nothing else, tell me this – if one of the main reasons why Les Miserables is a word-wide phenominan is because of the music, one – why did they choose actors who can only half sing, and two – why did they change the music? Again, cinematic music is very different to that of the theatre, but when the music is already so immense and cannot possibly be improved, any change is a complete disaster. My main example is the introduction to Stars, replacing the original beautiful broken chords of the harp (or sometimes guitar) with a harsh, jerky string introduction, which ironically was a perfect complement to Russel Crowe’s singing.
Which brings me to the issue of Russel Crowe…
Yes, he can’t sing.
But suprsingly, that wasn’t the issue for me. He did manage to hit all the right notes.. and that’s great if you’re playing Singstar, but not for a gigantic beast of a character that Javert is. We needed to squirm in fear when his face appeared on screen, feel his power and deseration when he sings his lines, feel the dread fill our stomach when he confronts our precious Jean Valjean. But no, instead, Crowe barely even managed to change his facial expression. The poor soul was concentrating so hard on his Do-Re-Mi’s that he simply forgot to act… and if you compare it to the grand performance of Philip Quast in the 10th anniversary concert, I rest my case. Amen.
I did, suprisingly, think that Anne Hathaway did a very good job, which I wasn’t expecting from Miss Princess Diaries herself. She really found that emotion and was able to use it in her singing to show us the desperation of fantine, and love for her daughter, Cosette. I wish I could say the same for Hugh Jackman – I can’t really critise his acting but it didn’t blow me away either. As for his singing, there was a lack of emotion in his voice which felt like he was almost being too careful – constantly dropping notes early, instead of holding on until they bloom from a strong belt into a pretty vibrato. No match for Colm Wilkinson’s wonderfully endless ‘home’ note. Bring Him Home also sounded slightly strained, which made me wonder if it was just too high for little Jackman.
The Theradiers entertained me – they were funny. But I was expecting more, especially from Helena Bonham Carter who can transform the most ordinary of characters into a masterpeice performance. I never thought I’d say this for her, but I wanted her to be more OTT – where was the fat, ugly, hideous Madame Thernadier?
Other than this, all other performances – Eddie Redmain, Amanda Seyfried and other supporting cast – were suitably impressive.
It really says something when the best performances came from those few actors who are stage trained. Samantha Barks did fantastic as Eponine, Colm Wilkinson’s small part I need not mention, and the revolutionaries were extremely impressive. American actor Aaron Tveit as Enjolras was also brilliant and stood out against the Hollywood wannabe singers.
In my opinion, so many people were expecting and hoping for Les Miserables to be good that I think many of us convinced ourselves that it was. But when you had such high expectations, and knew and loved the stage musical so dearly as I do, there are so many flaws in this that for me, it didn’t work. Although it costs an arm and a leg to visit the theatre nowadays, and allowing a home audience to appreciate the wonderful story can only be beneficial, I do think it was a mistake sticking so close to the stage production. I would have liked to see the story taken and developed considerably to create a drama, with dialogue and great filmic techniques. It meant that many features were the same, but obviously could only be second best, and became just a ‘not-so-good’ version of the theatre. That and the fact that the casting was poorely executed. In a film so hevaily reliant on singing, we needed the focus to be on talent and not Hollywood ‘names’.
Perhaps I think I could have done it better, perhaps no one can with such an incredible stage play to compete with. Or perhaps I just know the story too well to fully appreciate it and see what every other emotional wreck in the audience sees. But Les Miserables didn’t do it for me. It’s theatre all the way.