This is my review of Les Misérables [DVD] .
Coming to it with the “clean slate” of not having seen “Les Misérables” on stage, I find it hard to fault this film version of the musical. It succeeds in creating an epic spectacle which also captures the essence of Hugo’s masterpiece, designed to show the suffering of the masses, and to explore the issue of redemption in a world where social condemnation – of a mother abandoned by her lover, or a man forced to steal bread for his sister, can create “hell on earth”.
I was apprehensive about the reported length of three hours which turned out to be more like two-and-a-half, and passed without my feeling bored. Similarly, although I had feared that the delivery of virtually every line by actors rather than professional singers would be cringe-making, I soon realised that the sincerity with which they sing without losing the note gives a raw life to their performance which technically superior classical performances often lack. I admit I would not choose to listen to the film soundtrack alone.
Even if the music leaves you underwhelmed, there is a feast for the eyes and constant source of interest in the technically brilliant, imaginative sets.
Yes, the film is highly emotional, but that reflects the style of Hugo’s day, when being forced to watch the rapid decline and death of friends and relatives was a common experience, and deep poverty and suffering were widespread. The “love at first sight” romance between Cosette and Marius appears less important than the parallel tales which reflect what Hugo was trying to convey “a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life … The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end”.
I was impressed by the number and range of “good songs”. Apart from the well-known “I dreamed a dream” sung very movingly by Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who has been reduced to prostitution to feed her child Cosette, there is a rousing chorus delivered by the idealistic young revolutionaries at the barricades, complex love trios and quartets, and some striking solos such as Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty chairs and empty tables” reflecting the feeling of loss and utility in the aftermath of a battle. The child actors perform well: the young Cosette sings beautifully, and the cheeky Gavroche exudes confidence and energy in an Artful Dodger-style role.
Russell Crowe has been criticised for his weak singing, but I found it more than effective for the role of Javet, the inspector obsessed with tracking down Valjean who, sent to gaol for stealing bread, breaks his parole on being released after twenty years, but goes on to become a successful man, dedicated to living a good life. Crowe conveys well Javet’s growing sense of confusion that upholding the law means pursuing a former thief whose actions suggest he is a man of greater integrity than the inspector himself.