Can the epic Les Misérables win over UK viewers?
Twenty-seven years after it first opened on the West End stage – and 150 years after Victor Hugo’s novel was published – the film version of Les Misérables is finally here. And having seen a press screening of the film I’m happy to report that it’s well worth the wait.
Les Mis is epic yet emotionally engaging – with stylish design and cinematography, terrific performances from Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne, and smart direction from Tom Hooper (for extended interview, see below).
In tackling the Herculean task of making a film that pleases the 60 million people around the world who’ve seen Les Mis on stage, Hooper plays two master strokes.
First of all, he has all his actors singing live to a piano accompaniment they hear through an earpiece (with the orchestra’s contribution added later), rather than miming to a pre-recorded soundtrack, as is the convention in film musicals. Now this may expose the occasional vocal imperfection but it adds a raw immediacy which makes the film more believable and allows the actors to explore the full range of emotions suggested by the song – in the very moment of performance.
Secondly, much of the action is shot in close-up, often sustained for way longer than you’d expect. Most of Anne Hathaway’s rendition of I Dreamed a Dream for example is presented in one incredible take – and is all the more powerful for it. The effect is to draw in the viewer and hook us into the character’s emotional experiences. Or, as Tom Hooper told me this week, get the viewer ‘teared up’.
Watching Les Mis, both directorial decisions seem perfectly obvious. As I left the cinema I couldn’t help wondering why the singing in all musicals isn’t shot live. But the truth is that making film versions of stage musicals is notoriously difficult – and a famously risky business. In recent years there’ve been huge successes, like Chicago and Mamma Mia, but there’ve also been huge flops, like Rent and The Phantom of the Opera.
Early signs are that Les Mis will be a huge hit; the first reviews have been largely positive and Box Office receipts from the US, where it was released on Christmas Day, have already exceeded expectations.
But however it performs commercially, for me it succeeds creatively because the fictional world it presents makes perfect sense within itself. Viewers who don’t like musicals often complain of awkward moments in which characters launch from speech into song. As Les Mis is pretty much sung throughout, this clash of conflicting realities isn’t a problem. Sure, the occasional burst of emotional intensity can seem a little implausible, (love at first glance, lifelong hatred with no real cause, a particularly irrational suicide), but on the whole, the performances are so committed and the direction so consistent that this doesn’t pose any real problem
Be warned though, to get the most out of Les Mis you have to leave your proverbial disbelief outside the cinema, put up no resistance to its non-stop, in-your-face emotional intensity, and make a conscious decision to allow yourself to be swept away.
And trust me. If you do, you won’t be disappointed.