Let’s tackle the elephant in the room first of all. And no, I don’t mean the actual Elephant of the Bastille monument that the students lark about on in later scenes. I mean Russell Crowe‘s really shit singing. Here’s a little tip for any other theatre producers thinking of transferring their global phenomenon stage musical to the big screen: if there are rumblings about one of your leading actor’s singing not being up to scratch, don’t give him the opening line of the sodding film! My first thought was ‘oh god’. My second thought was ‘I can’t work out what he sounds like and it’s going to bug me for the next 157 minutes’. And my third thought (don’t worry, I’m not going to document every thought that entered my head throughout the film, that would be terrifying) was ‘oh yes, I’ve worked it out’.
The first few minutes are all a bit random really. Crowe’s Javert is great at riding a horse, and being downright menacing, so long as he isn’t carrying a (nasal) tune. Hugh Jackman‘s Valjean looks as rough as someone who’s spent 19 years in prison lugging boats around has every right to and, when he speaks, he sounds like he has a mouthful of spoons. That, coupled with the fact that they’re doing this weird sing/talk hybrid, and I can see why newcomers and reluctant viewers might have been a little put off. I struggled to enjoy it at first, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Les Mis fan. Ideally, they should have swapped it around a bit, and started the film with one of the more solid performances. But I guess they felt that telling the story out of chronological sequence, Pulp Fiction style, was unbecoming. Bloody theatre snobs.
Luckily, while I was still wondering whether this was actually going to be any good, Anne Hathaway turned up, had all her hair chopped off, sang a song, won an Oscar, and promptly died, all within the space of about 15 minutes. Nailed it, Hathaway.
By now, eight years have passed and Valjean’s had a chance to have a wash and remove all those spoons from his mouth, and scrubs up pretty nicely indeed. Hello Mr Mayor! It’s like that bit in Friends where Monica & Rachel mistake some guy for a yeti, but then he cuts his hair and he’s really hot. Or, you know, a reference to something far more highbrow. He sets off to rescue little Cosette (neatly skimming over the fact that he was kind of responsible for her mother’s untimely death) and give her a better life. Which means that she’ll get to wear pretty bonnets and no longer have to fetch water from that scary well, but she’ll never have any mates ever, and will always have to be ready to abscond at a moment’s notice, because her dad’s in some kind of unexplained, self imposed witness protection scheme.
At this point you should insert a new song, which we all know was crowbarred in to add one more Oscar nomination to the haul. The lyrics should be reminiscent of something Westlife would sing, while perched atop stools on a Top of the Pops stage.
Another nine years pass and, while the French revolution rumbles away in the background, Javert is still hunting for Valjean. Tip: he’s the one lugging the giant candlestick wherever he goes. Meanwhile Cosette falls in love, Valjean prepares to do another runner, and some students get pissed and shout ‘red’ and ‘black’ over and over again. This is all leading to the most rousing, and my absolute favourite, song of the stage show, One Day More. On screen I’m not entirely sure it meshed perfectly, but I’d have to see it again to be sure. At the theatre, this juncture would be your interval. But there’s no time for a gin & tonic at the cinema, people. The bleakness is unremitting as we immediately plough on with act two.
The thing is, I don’t actually find it all that gloomy. Within the context of 19th century France, I’d say they’re quite a cheery bunch really. Nonetheless, the Thénardiers are important for the purposes of comic relief. You would have thought that noted comic actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter would have pulled this off with aplomb. But I’m sad to say they did not. Master of the House felt like a dress rehearsal of something that could have, eventually, been great; while other killer lines are lost in the direction altogether. Shame, really.
While I don’t want this review to be entirely about Russell Crowe’s singing (I only want it to be 95% about that), his performance of Stars cannot go unmentioned. Stars is Javert’s big moment. His Anne Hathaway, if you will. Maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt, and suggest that the director was more concerned with having him balance along the edge of a really tall building than hitting some/any of the big notes. But Stars has been dumbed down so much it is rendered almost meaningless. And I know these songs, let me tell you. I’ve seen Les Misérables probably five times on the West End, plus a couple of school/college performances, and have driven the length of the M5 listening to the CD on more than one occasion.
There is plenty of enjoyment to be gained for fans of the show. The always ridiculous runaway cart becomes the fallen cart, seemingly because they couldn’t even be arsed to push it down a hill this time. The obligatory Cockney kid screaming ‘Vive le Francais!’ is good for a wry smile. And Enjolras pulls off a very fine version of the barricades death back-flip. There is also the amazing moment where, after dragging his future son-in-law (rather than just a bag of shoes and some money laundering paperwork) through endless sewers, Jackman emerges covered head to toe in shit, save for his beady white eyes. It’s brilliantly horrific.
I’m a fan, I’m predisposed to like it. There is good (outstanding) and bad (embarrassingly disappointing). But, ultimately, Les Misérables is more than the sum of its parts. Even if one of those parts is a New Zealand-born Australian actor who sounds like he’s making a three pints down attempt at “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears on Sing Star.
One final note of thanks to the impeccably behaved audience of the completely sold out 8pm showing at Leicester Showcase on Friday night, who watched the film in total silence and applauded at the end. You restored my faith in cinema-going.