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This is likely the most mainstream film you’ll see me discussing here, and I do so only because of my lifelong love of the novel and the musical. By all accounts, Les Misérables is a thoroughly depressing, yet emotionally and intellectually moving affair which translated beautifully to the stage, complete with beautiful and technically complex music. The move to cinema was rather less successful, as one thing becomes terribly clear – Tom Hooper wants a second Oscar, badly.

The most obvious error is of course, the singing. Les Misérables is a challenging musical (well, technically an opera), in which the songs require exceptional singing and acting ability. The film version adequately supplies the latter, but it is the distinctive lack of the former which renders more than one moment nearly cringe-worthy. It is unfortunate that this is the best of what Hollywood actors have to offer in terms of singing ability – simply being able to carry a tune or to impress your mates at a party is insufficient when it comes to the vocal calibre required here, and for the three lead actors portraying Valjean, Fantine, and Javert (Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe), it is painfully obvious. It is unfortunate, particularly because Jackman and Hathaway give exemplary acting performances here, but are impeded by their lack of vocal technique. In what ought to be the most tender and moving song of the entire musical, ‘Bring Him Home’ is a very long three-and-a-half minutes of Jackman clearly straining to hit each of those E-flats, rather diminishing its emotional impact; to compensate, lines are cut short and breath control is non-existent.

Indeed, it is this apparent lack of vocal technique for most of the actors which makes the need for obfuscation necessary: in the form of emotional punctuation. These singing ‘cheats’ substitute spoken lines, whispers, and gasps of overflowing emotional turmoil in place of sustained notes and high notes, among others. Hathaway’s entirely overrated rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is a consummate example of this absconding technique, in which she proves how very, very badly she wants her Oscar. Hathaway, in marytr-like desperation reminiscent of Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s Jeanne d’Arc (cropped hair and all), sniffles and sobs her way through most of her pieces, breaking out into the occasional belt to remind you that is a serious singer. In fact, of the lead actors, only Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne not only exceed the low expectations set by their fellow actors, but triumph in both their acting and singing roles.

In this sense, the second half of the film fared better than the first, owing to the ensemble pieces and emphasis on epic scenery and sets, rather than close-ups of trite impassioned displays which overshadow any semblance of singing ability. However, Hooper seems to struggle with the balance of gritty realism and the more ‘fantastical’ dramatic elements that make the stage version so poignant. Indeed, there are moments within the stage musical that are intentionally constructed to be cinematic in nature – the falling of the barricade, as the students fall backwards in slow motion, the shadows of dead revolutionaries in the tavern, etc. Oddly, the film does not appear to take advantage of these dramatic moments when it would seem most appropriate. Even the imposing nature of the barricade itself seems minor in proportion to the sprawling scale of Parisian streets. On the other hand, there are some aspects which have been transposed to film beautifully – the funeral procession scene coupled with ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’ is beautifully constructed, the blazing colours of revolutionary red and blue contrasted with the pale white of stone buildings. Likewise, the final scene splendidly conveys the rousingly epic quality of the film – with an oddly much more impressive barricade than in the rest of the film- , sprawling and unabashedly affecting (and curiously, stirring in oneself a sense of French patriotic pride, even if not French oneself).

Les Misérables is undoubtedly a grand film, with sweeping cinematography and interleaving narratives of romance, morality, and redemption. As a cinematic venture, it is tremendous; as a musical drama, it is oddly underwhelming. It is clear that spectacle is valued over quality, and for those easily seduced by the former in lieu of the latter, it will be rewarding; those with even a vague understanding of singing will be wondering how such a travesty could have been permitted. It is clear that Hooper has chosen actors who can sing (generally) rather than singers who can act, when it is truly the latter type which is required to successfully mount a production of this nature. However, if history is anything by which to go, sentimentality will always triumph, and Hathaway’s doleful heavenward gaze to the gods of the Academy Awards will be answered.

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