Musicals can be the most subjective of movie genres. When else do people completely dismiss or embrace an entire type of film so readily? It doesn’t have to be this way, one can enjoy ‘The Lion King’ without having to like Elton John, and if you don’t like ‘The Sound of Music’ well then…
‘Les Misérables’, lacks such universal appeal though, and is probably the most subjectively enjoyable film of 2012.
A lot of this stems from the show’s ‘sung-through musical’ nature. There are barely a dozen lines of spoken dialogue in the whole piece, and many of the same tunes are repeated throughout. Put simply, you have to like this music. It is relentless, it is loud, it is constant, and it’s all rather similar. No film of this musical would be able to transcend the music on which it is based.
When adapting a stage show to a film, it is always important for a filmmaker to try and do something with it that and justifies using this different medium, and sets it apart from a piece of filmed theatre. ‘The King’s Speech’ director Tom Hooper immediately appears to state his intentions to do such by opening with a sweeping shot that takes us over the stormy harbour waters where a large (presumably CGI) ship is being hauled into dock by a group of prisoners. Despite this rousing introduction, he then opts for a totally different approach for the majority of the film. Bar a couple of exceptions, nearly all the big numbers are filmed in unbroken close ups, often with the actors singing directly into the camera. It allows you to see all the tears running down their cheeks and such during key moments in the songs, and while undoubtedly different from seeing it on stage, its not particularly cinematic and can become wearisome.
Quite a starry cast has been assembled for this adaptation, some not primarily known for their singing ability. Hugh Jackman gets a chance to show those who know him mainly as Wolverine what he was originally famous for, while Anne Hathaway is almost sure to win an Oscar for her emotional turn. Russell Crowe, who’s been taking quite a lot of flak so far, is no way near as bad as you might have heard. Indeed it’s Amanda Seyfried (taking a second stab at musicals after the utterly ghastly ‘Mamma Mia’) who leaves little impression.
Being a film of a show of a book, itself adapted many other times, there will be varying degrees of familiarity with which one would approach this new version of ‘Les Misérables’. Personally, aside from the songs that everyone knows (‘tum-ti tum-ti tum-ti tum’), I was going in with no knowledge of the material. While many of the plot points are clear, others are not, for example I’m still not entirely sure what exactly the big protest was about, and the romantic subplot was both undersold and overly sentimental.
‘Les Misérables’ already has many, many fans around the world, who may get a lot out of this version, but it all boils down to what you think of the music. Its closest cinematic companion would probably be Joel Schumacher’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ film. Like that adaptation, if you know you like it, it’s worth going to see the film, if you know you don’t, it’s highly unlikely to win you over.