In the dim recesses of my memory, quite possibly falsely, I seem to recollect watching an interview with the late and great actor Sir Laurence Olivier in which he made certain observations about playing the role of Macbeth. They were to the effect that this was not really something that was something which should not really be attempted by an actor before the age of 40, for the reason that before then one would not understand the unwanted vicissitudes and tragedies of life. I could not find the exact quote on the internet, but he is attributed with this one, which is in the same vein:
“When you’re a young man, Macbeth is a character part. When you’re older, it’s a straight part.”
From my quinquagenarian perspective I can attest that Sir Larry was one hundred percent correct.
When “Les Miserables”, also variously known as “Les Mis”, “Les Miz”, “Miserable Lesbians” or more simply “The Glums” came out in London in 1985 I did not go and see it. I was very earnest and hard working at the time (I was also a bit broke) and a bit of Music Hall frippery was not really on the agenda, even though the blooming posters seemed to be everywhere. However, when I finally went to see a touring production in the mid 1990’s I was very deeply moved.
As is well known, when the “musical” (I am not sure it is quite that) opened it received a considerable kicking from the critics. I caught a television appraisal of twenty five years of Les Mis re-shown a few weeks ago, and it featured a fabulous and now hilarious clip of snotty and toffee nosed critics on the Beeb’s arts programme, largely dressed in beige, rounding upon it as sentimental, badly written drivel. Whilst it is laden with sentiment, it is neither badly written nor drivel. I understand that some of Mozart’s more playful operettas received a much better reception in the bawdy music halls of Vienna than with the critics of the day; both are interesting illustrations that those who hold themselves out as the self appointed intelligentsia and guardians of cultural (and political?) taste are often not only out of touch, but inferior in acumen to the Common Man.
But I digress. Despite the critical mauling the popularity of Les Mis spread by word of mouth, and the rest, as they say, is history. It is the most successful “musical” in history.
What is the secret of Les Mis success? Leaving aside the fact that some of the songs are remarkably strong, it is the context in which the songs are set that changes their impact from mere emotional punch to emotional jack hammer blow.
It seems to me, on reflection, the world’s favourite musical has a great deal in common with what is often considered or voted the world’s favourite film, “The Shawshank Redemption”.
Neither was critically well received at first. “The Shawshank Redemption” did not even do well at the Box Office. Word spread slowly, and its fame was based on video sales. Both deal essentially with the theme of injustice: undeserved and unfair disasters heaped upon innocent albeit flawed people by “the system” which remorselessly persecutes over a lifetime. Both deal with the theme resistance to that oppression by the underdog, self sacrifice, grief, and facing death and loss. Both may invoke consideration of faith, although in different ways. Les Mis has the added factors of both young love and unrequited love and loss to boot. In both there is a sense of ultimate redemption, even in death, born of compassion and fortitude.
Of course, it is worthwhile noting that this may be an Anglo Saxon, or at least non–French perspective. As I understand it the story of “Les Mis” is woven deep into the psyche or the political DNA for the French. It is part of the national narrative in a way we might think of The Battle of Britain or so forth. Having discussed the film with a kind friend who is French and the mother of four children, her observation is that she finds amongst other matters the thought of young Frenchman killing young Frenchman unbearably tragic.
On a slightly less pompous note, I would also add that that both productions invoke the dramatic device of having the major protagonists crawling and scraping to freedom through a river of s**t. Note to budding authors! Always have your heroes crawl to redemption and freedom through a river of s**t! It obviously sells by the s**tload.
Anyway, the stage production has now received universal, world wide acclaim. So just how good is the film? Well it is getting rave reviews, but here is my two penn’th worth. I toddled down to my local multiplex last Saturday, purchased my ubiquitous packet of wine gums, and awaited being given an emotional going over, somewhat pensive.
How good is it? Well, put it this way: I have never before seen or heard a film get a spontaneous ripple of applause from the audience at the end.
The singing is done live, not dubbed; the actors sang with an earpiece linked to piano to carry the tune, and the 70 piece orchestral score is then added on afterwards. This gives the actors immediacy and real connection with what they are about on screen.
The film is beautifully shot; some of what I believe is called cinematography is superb. So are some of the costumes. I would love to dress as a 19th Century French police inspector – so totally cool! Who designed THAT! I am not qualified to comment on the finer arts of directing, but director Tom Hooper knows what he is doing. But, as ever, it is the cast that makes it. All theatrical drama involves a conceit that we know this is not real, that we are watching “make believe”, and the success of the production will depend on the ability to which we are willing to put that simple fact to one side and believe, or at least suspend disbelief. This becomes an acute issue in the case of a “musical”, because rarely do people conduct their social intercourse through sung verse, with the aid of an orchestra. However, from the moment that this film quite literally cascades from the screen, you can go with it and embrace it.
There is an often justified tendency these days to deride “luvvies” and “celebs” as fatuous and famous only for their pursuit of fame. On the whole, I would encourage this. But it is wrong to confuse all actors with “luvvies” and sometimes there is a good reason why some actors are famous, and that reason is that they are very talented and bloomin’ good at what they do.
I mainly know Hugh Jackman (or “Huge Action” as he is colloquially known to some) as a hairy and hunky man called Wolverine in the “X Men” films. But I also know that he is a very talented singer (and dancer, I believe) with a number of successful stage musicals under his belt, including an acclaimed Oklahoma! in the West End.
In the lead role of Valjean he is colossal. Russell Crowe has got some stick for his singing, which is not the strongest, but I think he brings real screen presence to the role of the martinet Inspector Javert, in one of his best performances. Sacha Baron Cohen, sometimes better known as Ali G, or Borat, has a good go at stealing the show as the villainous innkeeper; apart from the comedic touches there are a few snaps of real nastiness and menace to the performance. The usual joke amongst cinema aficionados is that Helena Bonham Carter just plays herself in every movie; as the innkeeper’s slightly Goth-punk, over the top eccentric other half she does so again, but with great aplomb.
I had a slight problem with one member of the cast being miscast, because I could not imagine a pig in heat, let alone the gorgeous, porcelain skinned Amanda Seyfried, falling in love at first sight with the bloke who plays Marius, but perhaps that is just me.
But if it is Jackman who carries the weight of the movie, quite literally in some scenes, special mention should be made of Anne Hathaway. She comes across as quite a normal and funny woman in interviews I have heard and seen, and she made an appealing, stylish, sexy and feisty turn as Catwoman in the latest “Dark Knight” Batman vehicle (which goes on, and on and on….).
But what to make of Hathaway as the Fantine, girl with an illegitimate daughter who is left broken, penniless and cast out, selling her hair and teeth to provide for her child, and forced into prostitution before dying of neglect and grief?
Hathaway’s performance as Fantine is, frankly, not very good.
It is really, really good. She may not have the power of a West End or Broadway pro, but she has a good voice, and she can act. Her version of the iconic and heart breaking “I dreamed a dream” is her do or die moment in the film. It is filmed up close and personal, and Hathaway does not so much as pull at the heart strings as tear them mercilessly though the rib cage and proceed to fling them all over the cinema with the aid of a baseball bat. I understand that she nearly starved herself to attain the look for the part, and it shows. There is more than a touch of the escapee from a concentration camp about her as she variously whispers, talks and lets rip with the words, venting all the despair and anger of betrayed love, and a blighted, cruelly ruined existence. If she doesn’t get an Oscar for best supporting waif or some such, I am Barry Norman. Did I cry? Of course I bloody cried! I cried in the cinema! I cried when by chance it came on the radio on the drive back home! I cried at the blooming trailer for goodness sakes! This is the best version I can find on the indefatigable youtube:
I did a lot of crying, in fact, through a lot of the film. It sort of does that to you. Quietly, and discreetly mind, in an English way. There were quite a few “I am cleaning my glasses now” and “I have lost things on the floor” moments.
But why did I cry? Was it sentimentality? Maybe so. I would prefer to say that it is because at more than fifty years of age I have come to realise that for some strange metaphysical reason that I ponder in the lonely dark hours, Life comes to test the best of us the most sorely. Because I have loved and suffered loss. Because I have suffered unfair vicissitudes that I never invited or deserved. Because I will not give up, at least not yet. This is what makes both The Shawshank Redemption and Les Mis great art. They contain a profound truth, which is that the injustices and cruelties of the world exist, but can be overcome. It is something that the poncey art critics could never have understood, because they would never have been tested by these things in the first place. Life never tested them.
Anyway, I do prattle on….
How good is it? Bloody good. Oscar for Hathaway, I think. And Russell – where hell can I get one of those coats?!
©Gildas the Monk