The old maxim that criticising something is easier than praising it is so true. For some reason, I found it incredibly easy to write a review of the awful Midnight in Paris, but when it comes to writing about Les Misérables I have complete and utter writer’s block. Even though I had never seen the stage production and wasn’t particularly excited about the fact that they were making a film version, as soon as I saw one shot of Tom Hooper’s gorgeously shot masterpiece I was hooked, playing the trailer over and over again. It had me welling up even before I reached the cinema.
So I thought I’d better come clean right away – this is not a dispassionate analysis of the film’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s a reflection on a piece of art that I love in a rather fiercely protective kind of way. When I hear people mocking Anne Hathaway’s facial expressions, I want to snap at them ‘How dare you ridicule a woman’s pain!’ When people say that they prefer the stage version, I (completely irrationally, because, as I said, I have never seen it on stage) leap to the film’s defence, saying ‘Well, you wouldn’t be able to get the same emotional intimacy, the closeups of the distraught faces, in the stage version.’
You’ll know the story by now – based on Victor Hugo’s 19th Century French novel, Les Misérables was made into a popular musical in the 1980s and has been a Broadway and West End hit ever since. Set during the last gasps of the 1830 French Revolution, the story depicts the struggles and passions of various characters against the backdrop of poverty and the growth of revolutionary sentiments. There are classic love triangles and stories of youthful idealism, and songs like ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ and ‘On My Own’ that have filtered into our modern consciousness and have become well-worn cliches, as has the famous illustration of the ragged haired waif, Cosette.
For me, Anne Hathaway’s performance was the real gem that lit up the whole film and completely melted my heart. She took a rather worn out and cheesy song and made it sound utterly fresh, as if she was the first person to ever sing it, while completely captivating audiences around the world in a four minute long close up of her face. Her voice was pure and sweet and laden with emotion, and she let it break but never lost control entirely. There are plenty of bad reviews of Russell Crowe’s performance, and I think it is because, while his singing voice was fine, it wasn’t expressive – in stark contrast with Anne, singing the song that she first heard her mother singing when she was eight years old, the song that inspired her to be an actress. She couldn’t have deserved her Golden Globe more.
If you don’t like musicals, you probably won’t like Les Mis, unless you want to watch it just for the pure joy of beautiful cinematography. But really, be warned – with only a handful of spoken words throughout the entire film, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin, so if you can’t take the genre seriously don’t blame the film. But oh! I pity you! If you let it, Les Mis will drag you through the struggle, filth and desperation to the sublime heroism, self sacrifice and love that crowns and ennobles our human existence.
“To love another person is to see the face of God.”