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Film review: LES MISERABLES, from Built For Speed

The problem with many film musicals is that, removed from the artificial world of the stage, the site of people bursting into song seems ridiculous. This becomes a bigger problem when the film goes for a gritty, realistic look as opposed to the deliberately staged look of the classic film musicals from the 1940’s and 50’s.   Les Miserables, a screen adaptation of the stage musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel suffers badly from this problem as it transports all the singing into a realistic looking 19th century Paris. While the film looks big, expensive and impressively detailed, the realism just makes the songs seem more comical.  Fortunately, Hugo’s story of injustice and redemption in revolutionary France is still compelling enough to pull the film back from the brink.

A worthy cast also helps. Hugh Hackman has the essential decency needed for the role of the noble but conflicted Jean Valjean a former convict hiding his identity after breaking parole many years ago. Russell Crowe is an appropriately menacing authority figure as the policeman Javert who pursues Valjean with the obsessiveness of Captain Ahab.   Anne Hathaway delivers a brief but touching performance as the abused, shaven-headed factory worker Fantine.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are also amusing as thieving husband and wife innkeepers feeding off the chaos of revolution.

Despite the film’s grimy realism it was always going to have an uphill battle getting us to accept its depiction of revolutionary France.  Nowadays we automatically associate the site of scurvy-ridden Parisienne peasants with Mel Brooks’ piss-take History of the World Part 1.  Also, it’s a little hard to take the revolution seriously when the guys leading the coup look like One Direction as they do here.

Audience members will also need considerable tolerance to deal with the musical aspect of this film. It would have been fine if the film had normal dialogue and big musical set pieces. Unfortunately, between the discernible songs, Les Mis tortures the audience with relentless, tuneless talk-singing which is at best laughable and at worst coma inducing.

Also, the quality of the cast’s singing is mixed. Hugh Hackman, who has extensive stage musical experience, belts out his numbers in earnest but effective fashion. Also, Anne Hathaway nails the show stopper “I dreamed a dream” the song made famous by Susan Boyle.  Unfortunately, Russell Crowe’s bilious warbling disturbingly recalls the musical stylings of one Darryl Somers. If they had just let Crowe act this would have been a memorable performance for the right reasons, having him sing introduces an unnecessary comic element.

Fans of the stage show will most likely revel in this big budget film adaptation and the presence of major stars.  Those not enamoured of the stage production’s charms or those of musicals generally will find nearly everyone one of Les Mis’s 158 minutes a chore.

Nick’s rating: Two and half stars.

Classification: M

Director(s): Tom Hooper

Release date: 26th Dec 2012

Running time:  157 mins

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