Les Misérables: a revolutionary musical

After years of Hollywood giving us pale Broadway retreads,
Tom Hooper has made a musical that is worth seeing.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Politics

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Taking place earlier this week, the seventieth annual Golden Globe Awards came and went without the slightest hint of upset or scandal. In the absence of Ricky Gervais’ acerbic, ego-popping jibes, which had Tinsel Town royalty reeling over his past two turns hosting, comediennes Tina Fey and Amy Poehler presided over a smooth-running and inoffensive handing out of gongs. Even Jodie Foster’s rambling, not-quite-coming-out speech, after receiving a lifetime achievement award, failed to enliven proceedings much.

Those who cleaned up were more or less as to be expected. Best actor went to Daniel Day-Lewis for his portrayal of America’s most revered statesman in Lincoln, serving as this year’s stately, hate-it-at-your-peril biopic; Ben Affleck’s critic- and box-office friendly thriller Argo made for an unobjectionable choice for best film drama; and Les Misérables was awarded best comedy or musical, a gong that usually serves as a consolation prize. At least this was one musical with a high-enough profile to justify the Globes’ bizarre tandem award, in lieu of admitting that the ailing genre doesn’t warrant its own category anymore.

Except that on this occasion, this was no mere consolation prize. Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the sung-through stage musical, set amid the death throes of the French Revolution, was actually a deserving winner, rather than another bone-throw to the all-singing, all-dancing corner of the biz.

You can understand my shock, for musicals have had a rather sketchy showing at the cinema of late.

Once upon a time, Hollywood pushed the boundaries of the musical format, taking existing classics like The Sound Of Music and rendering them in panoramic, Technicolor splendour. Films like The Wizard of Oz and Singing In The Rain are quirky and original classics in their own right. Today, however, producers have resigned themselves to making lush but uninspiring, paint-by-numbers adaptations of Broadway mainstays – like Phantom of the Opera and Sweeney Todd – or, more recently, churning out versions of flash-in-the-pan jukebox musicals. The latter is a reprehensible trend that has managed to completely reduce the musical to the guilty, join-in pleasures of panto, with singalong, subtitled showings urging us to be accessories to the murder of Abba’s back catalogue.

For the film industry, musicals have become little more than a means to making a quick buck off the back of an established brand, and the West End and Broadway have responded in kind, meaning audiences have recently had to endure Shrek belting out a solo.

Where Hooper succeeds, however, is that he doesn’t treat drama and musical as separate, even antagonistic formats – one, toe-tapping pap; the other, the realm of storytelling proper. Instead, he lends cinematic majesty to the musical numbers while wrenching the story’s pathos from beneath its pitch-perfect sheen.

Les Mis begins with a swooping aerial shot, which flies us towards the French port of Toulon, propelled by the sea-ravaging winds and the spirited stomp of opening number, ‘Work Song’. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a peasant serving 19 years’ hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread, stands in a chain gang, hauling a teetering ship into dock as he tunefully laments his time of toil as ‘prisoner 24601’. His sentence finished, he is given his marching orders by pompous overseer Javert (Russell Crowe, off-key but passable), and swears to never return to bondage.

From the off, the melodrama is palpable and dialled-up by the production’s immense scale, but there is something sincere and human here, too.

Jean returns to find a society even more hostile than the one he left. The year is 1815, the revolution lies in tatters and the House of Bourbon has been restored to the throne. During his gradual rise to honour and respectability, Jean comes to meet those stricken by desolation and despair. Their pain is articulated through some stunning solos, where – Crowe excluded – the cast members show off some pretty fearsome pipes.

Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is a stand-out. On screen for barely 20 minutes, her descent into prostitution is harrowing and capped off with a barnstorming, one-take performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, a devastating ode to the death of her girlish innocence. Among the tuneful surprises is toothy, Brit pin-up of the minute Eddie Redmayne (playing lovelorn revolutionary Marius), who holds his own in a stirring number about being torn between one’s cause and one’s heart.

All the actors were made to sing live on set, which makes these moments tentative, allowing for vocal subtlety that is impossible when trying to sing to the rafters. Hooper’s claustrophobic close-ups provides nose-to-nose intimacy.

David Sexton, film critic for the London Evening Standard, sparked a comment-section firestorm last week when, in lieu of bothering to review (or even, it seems, to watch Les Mis), he used the film’s release as an opportunity to dismiss all musicals as ‘embarrassing and stupid’ – a ‘travestied’ hybrid of drama and song. Sexton is of that most repellent breed of critic who denounces that which he fails to understand or even troubles himself to experience. But his snobbery aside (he posits fans as ‘poor saps’ who must lack ‘any interior life of their own’), it’s understandable how such a violent aversion to the form could fester, given that currently Legally Blonde: The Musical is a West End mainstay.

Nonetheless, to his contention that he ‘wouldn’t be converted if only [I] saw the right musical’, I say, take the time to take in the film you so blithely dismiss. It may be just another musical adaptation, and one that, on the whole, rarely strays from its 30-year-old blueprint, but it is nonetheless a poignant and charming film. Les Mis is a paean to the infectious spirit of musical theatre and a demonstration of how film can draw out its intricacies.

Let’s see the silver screen rekindle its love affair with song, and maybe one day ‘best musical’ will be a Golden Globe category all of its own. Les Misérables is certainly a fine place to start.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Les Misérables here:

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Topics Politics


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