Sunday, 17 February 2013

Review - Les Miserables

Les Miserables is, by now, a bona fide smash. The adaptation of the insanely popular stage show (itself, of course, based on Victor Hugo’s thumping great novel of social injustice in post-revolutionary France) has banked getting on for a $400m return on its $60m budget. Fair play to director Tom Hooper, then – there’s no doubting this was a risky business; we’re decades removed from Hollywood’s musical era, it’s sung through (and live, not overdubbed afterward), and it stars Russell Crowe, whose singing pedigree is limited to his honestly-named vanity rock group, Thirty-Odd Foot of Grunts.

So whether or not I enjoyed or recommend it seems neither here nor there. I thought it was OK – impressive enough, with some striking performances and sound direction – but I couldn’t empathise with the rest of the audience who burst into enthusiastic applause at the fin (last experienced in Hooper’s crowd-pleasing King’s Speech, curiously enough). It’s rammed with CG (which undermined the spectacle for me) but it seemed smart to me to drop the mid-shots in favour of warts’n’all close-ups and sweeping wide shots – essentially, the views you don’t get watching the stage play.

To the performances, then: Hugh Jackman is a magnetic lead with a great voice; Anne Hathaway (who’s always been a bit hit-and-miss for me) is also great, notwithstanding the fact that she’s the most radiant and glamorous peasant ever to sell her teeth.

Crowe – who is not everyone’s favourite actor, but for whom I have a Nicholas-Cage-esque soft spot – is a big surprise. No, he can’t really sing, but it’s not as wince-inducing as Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, and his weedy pipes actually enhance his character’s inherent tragedy. Eddie Redmayne has received immense praise for his posho-student revolutionary; I found his Morrissey-esque voice vaguely amusing but I suppose he tried hard and everyone else seemed to like it.

I swing the other way, as it were, for Helena Bonham Carter, whose go-to stock ‘witchy madness’ routine might keep her in Goth Juice but I would love to see her genuinely cast against type in something. Her screen husband, Sacha Baron Cohen, is in his element as a pantomime buffoon reminiscent of his turn in Scorsese’s Hugo, but again, patience is wearing thin with the Baron Cohen schtick – he badly needs another Borat.

Fundamentally, though, I cannot get around the fact that I’m just not really that keen on musicals. As I’ve got older, my tolerance has grown a little – but just a little. I’ve more or less got over the whole ‘bursting into song while walking down the street’ thing, but the saccharine musical theatre melodies and corny lyrics just leave me cold. Musicals that I genuinely do like are exceptions that prove the rule: South Park (sweary, hilarious and parodic); Cabaret (not really a musical); The Blues Brothers (simply great tunes), The Muppets (it’s The Muppets). Les Miz – which is sung-through and arguably closer to Gilbert & Sullivan light opera than a true studio musical – has the odd catchy track, but the contrivance is inescapable to me and, soulless misanthrope that I am, I couldn’t lose myself in the film.

Overall then – a grand-scale production, executed well enough but ultimately not my cup of tea.