Talk about hype.
For nearly two months, I have been unable to escape promotional interviews for Les Miserables. There were interviews comparing the real-life Hugh Jackman to Jean Valjean. Jackman, it seems, has adopted a child and that’s totally like Valjean! There were whispers of awards for how great the acting was in a film which nobody had yet seen! There were snippets of song snuck on to YouTube in which the die-hard fans would bask and opine that this was going to be a turning point in the musical-to-film genre.
It’s complete garbage.
Like ‘There were times when I lost the will to live’ complete garbage.
There are two major problems with the film. The first is Russell Crowe. Russell Crowe cannot sing. Russell Crowe sound like a foghorn when he sings and looks like Foghorn Leghorn when he tries to move his face. And it’s difficult to tell precisely how self aware Crowe is about his severe lack of talent. Warbling like he has the mumps, Crowe confronts Jean Valjean confrontationally in a confrontational song called ‘Confrontation’.
Here’s Jason Segal and Neil Patrick Harris having a crack at it:
Even though they’re doing it for laughs, there’s still some tension. NPH makes a menacing Javert. But even when it’s done for realsies, you can get some major passion in the scene:
Oooooh. Javert with so much passion that he even spits a bit. That’s a little bit gross.
Crowe simply does not have the vocal chops to bring the game to Jean Valjean. Most of the way through the film, I had to wonder if the police deliberately sent the Arnold Rimmer of the French Police to hunt down the guy who stole some bread and then skipped on his parole.
It is difficult to excuse how terrible he is. Here he is releasing Valjean:
When I saw some of these clips, I wondered if it was just the sound quality through YouTube. No. He really is that shocking. He seems to think he’s in some sort of rock opera.
The second problem is the conversion of a musical to film. Perhaps the most successful transitions between stage to film were The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Grease. Neither of these films are particularly strong on plot, nor are they particularly weighty subjects. When aspects of theatre creep into the action — such as people joining in for songs, non sequitur dance sequences, and the inconsistent ability to hear the person singing three feet away from you — the audience dismisses it as part of the theatricality of the films they are watching.
Les Miserables tries to be a genuine film which uses the music as the foundation. The style of the film is closer to the modern blockbuster than it is to RHPS or Grease. But this means that those creeping aspects of theatre become almost comical.
For example, Valjean is on the run from Javert. He has narrowly escaped with Corsette and now, in silence, flees down alleyways. Fortunately — serendipitously — he bumps into an ally.
Valjean is so happy to meet an ally that he forgets that he’s trying to elude Javert and sings a song at the top of his voice. The result is less Les Miserables and more Pirates of Penzance:
There’s something absurd about musical theatre. It’s melodramatic. Why are people singing about their feelings like this? If somebody acted this way in real life, you’d think that they had gone a bit funny in the head. The only way to make sense of it is through appeal to the context of watching musical theatre.
But modern audiences don’t have that sort of attitude towards film. We watch films and expect that what’s on the screen is a factual account of the narrative. I think even the concept of an ‘unreliable narrator’ would confuse modern film-goers.
So when people are singing about each other within earshot, the characters should be able to hear each other. That’s how films work. And if they can’t hear each other, something’s gone weird.
At the very least, modern audiences expect consistency. Sometimes, the characters can hear each other… Other times, characters can overhear each other… Sometimes, random characters in the background can join in for a line or two in a song… But the soliloquies don’t work. They are visibly confusing.
The result is an absurdity in both senses. The actions are lost without context, and the only response available to the audience is laughter.
It’s almost a shame, then, that they chose to go with Les Miserables and not Gilbert and Sullivan. The incompatibility of theatrical elements with expectations of film audiences would, if anything, make the experience funnier. I’m not even a fan of G&S and I’d still go watch.
In conclusion, don’t go see Les Miserables. Crowe is terrible and the film is broken.
(As a bit of a post script, Hathaway and Baron-Cohen were excellent. Such a shame Bonham-Carter is in this.)