Many years ago, I went to the West End to see Les Miserables during the London musical feeding frenzy that saw Les Mis pitted against Phantom of the Opera. Tickets had to be bought months in advance and so I ended up with a ticket from a tout. I was so high in the gods that the only thing preventing me from falling to the ground in a vertigo fit was the massive great pillar slapbang in front of my face. As a result, my feelings were mixed. Nevertheless, I’ve had a love of this musical for years and I have been counting the days to the release of Tom Hooper’s cinematic version.
Much has been made of the fact that Hooper had his actors sing live during the filming. No tarted up studio singing here. And what a great decision this was. On stage, Les Mis is an emotional tour de force but it is more rousing than gut wrenching. In the film, the distance between character and audience is removed. Close ups of faces distraught with feeling, singing ‘live’, makes this film musical so intense, so powerfully raw that I have rarely sobbed as much in a theatre before. It’s not easy to spoil Les Mis, it was published well over 100 years ago and many know the songs, but it gives nothing away to say that these were not good days for Paris. If you were poor, you might well end up on the streets thieving or prostituting oneself. If you were rich and with a conscience you might be blown to pieces on the barricades of revolution. As a member of the audience, you sit through it all – pride, despair, death, faith, vengeance, justice, cruelty, poverty, love, mercy and more death. One tissue will not be enough. An entire loo roll might not be enough.
Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman have already won their first major awards of the season – Golden Globes for (respectively) best supporting actress and best actor in a musical or comedy. This might well, Daniel Day-Lewis permitting, be repeated at the Oscars without the musical or comedy label. It is true that Hathaway’s Fantine has relatively little screen time. But, blimey, what she gets she puts to perfect use. It is also fair to say that her version of I Dreamed a Dream bears little similarity to Susan Boyle’s. Hugh Jackman likewise deserves all he gets – through song and expression, we watch Valjean’s life evolve in front of our eyes and ears. Who would have thought that a musical character could be so perfectly three-dimensional.
But they’re not alone – Russell Crowe as Javert and Eddie Redmayne as Marius were stand out performances for me. Watching and listening to Redmayne singing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables may be enough to push the fragile Les Mis viewer over the edge. While I have heard complaints about Crowe’s singing, I found his performance nothing less than charismatic throughout. I can’t imagine any other actor breathing such authority into the inspector uniform. How great, too, to see Colm Wilkinson – the most well-known stage Valjean – as the Bishop (what a voice) and another figure from the stage musical, Samantha Barks as Eponine.
Les Mis looks as good as it sounds – from the opening scene, which is visually spectacular to the barricades in the streets – you can smell the muck and cheap scent of the streets almost as vividly as you can hear the pain of living in them. I saw Les Mis (twice) in a cinema packed to the gills with weeping, sobbing men and women. The punch of Les Mis knows no restraint and few can withstand it.