I tell you what, there isn’t half a lot of singing in Les Misérables. If you’re not au fait with musicals, it doesn’t go: acting, acting, acting, song, acting, acting, acting, song. It goes: song, song, song, song, song, song, song. Then there is some more singing.
What did Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean do? He “Stooooooooooole a loaf of bread,” and ended up doing 19 years hard labour. When he finally gets out, Valjean breaks his parole and goes on the run, chased by Russell Crowe’s jobsworth cop Javert. Judging by the accents, it all takes place in Victorian London, except with more French flags.
Now, some of this might not be entirely accurate. My mother would be able explain it properly – she loved the West End musical and she will adore this film. She’s booked tickets for the opening night. She’ll see it twice. She’ll buy the DVD and put it on in the background while she does the ironing.
Me, I hated it. Loathed it.
The running time is supposed to be 158 minutes (and you can do a lot in 158 minutes – juries have spent less time deliberating over whether men will live or die; politicians have decided the fate of nations; mayflies have completed their entire sexual lifespans. Some humans have completed their entire sexual lifespans), but the producers somehow manage to twist the very laws of physics and play out the 17-year plot in real-time. At around the half-way mark I swear I died and discovered that hell is just people singing at you forever and ever and ever. And ever. During one particularly tragic part I wanted to burst out in song:
“Instead of him take meeeeeeee.
“Just do it quicklyyyyyyy”
Russell Crowe is both the best and worst part of the whole thing. He can’t sing a note but he looks very pleased with himself anyway, like a guy who has not only passed wind in a crowded lift but brought out a pack of matches and tried to light it. The rest of the acting can’t really be faulted, if you’re into that shouty, singy thing, especially given director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech and The Damned United) made them sing every take live instead of dubbing the audio back in later like any sane man would. Anne Hathaway blows it out of the water as Fantine, a poor wench who ends up selling her hair and her teeth. Jackman is also quite brilliant, especially at the beginning, when he looks like a caged weasel that’s just been poked with a really sharp stick. Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide some light relief the first time they come on screen, as the dodgy innkeeper and his wife, but then just repeat the same “Master of the House” part over and over until you literally wish you were dead.
For a while I tried to ignore all the singing and just enjoy the look and feel of it. The grime and squalor of 19th century France is realised in immaculate detail, with some terrific swooping, Peter Jackson-esque shots of Paris. It’s a shoo-in for all the Oscars that nobody really cares about like Best Production Design and Best Costume. But even this eventually gets drowned out by all the songs of angry men and the very audible dreams being dreamed (and while we’re on that, I think it’s shameful how they nicked that song from Susan Boyle. Shameful).
You already know before you sit down whether you’re going to love or loathe Les Misérables. Fans of the stage musical will find a fantastically rendered, all-star production. Others, like me, will feel like they are being slowly suffocated by a singing blanket. With that in mind, reading this review has been a complete waste of time. Sorry.
First published in City A.M.