Wednesday, May 08, 2013

"Les Misérables" (2012)

This is an adaptation of a stage musical that in turn is an adaptation of a French stage musical that was adapted from the famous huge 19th century novel by Victor Hugo. It has the kind of rambling plot these kind of novelistic porkers tend to feature, but the central spine follows this ex-con Jean Valjean who has broken his parole, adopted a new identity, become rich and respectable and acquired an adoptive daughter, but is being intermittently hunted by Javert, a police inspector. It climaxes with a doomed uprising in Paris against the French monarchy, in which Valjean takes part. There is also a bit of a love story angle between Valjean's adoptive daughter and a young fop who is one of the leaders of the ineffectual revolution.

Now, before going to this I was hearing about how emotionally exerting it all was, with people talking about how the film had them all blubbing in their seats by the time it ended. I, however, found it emotionally unengaging. This might partly be because of how fucking freezing the cinema in which I saw the film was, but the film's own characteristics played their part in its not striking a chord with me. For a long film, much of it seemed rushed and perfunctory, with characters appearing, singing a song or two, and then dying. I suppose it was these deaths that were meant to be reducing the audience to tears, but the characters were too unfleshed out or the deaths too random to warrant a strong emotional response.

I think maybe the film's status as a musical is part of the problem here. Les Misérables is a big novel so any adaptation of it has a lot to cover. This is a long film, so that should not be a problem, except that with so much of the time devoted to introspective songs the narrative has to be truncated. This can be the fundamental problem with musicals - the viewer often ends up thinking "shut up with the singing and get on with the story". I understand that in the relatively recent past the creators of musicals came up with the idea of taking parts of the narrative and turning it into songs, instead of having the songs as a break in the story. This is not really an approach used by the creators of this film of Les Misérables.

I also felt that that the songs in this film were not that great, which is a bit of a problem for a musical. That, obviously, is a controversial comment when said of a film adaptation of one of the most successful stage musicals ever, but I found the songs to be mostly flat and unmemorable. There were some exceptions to this, like the 'I dreamed a dream' song or the revolutionary anthem, but most of the rest seemed whiny and inconsequential.

The politics was maybe a bit thin too. The revolutionaries seemed like a bunch of fops with no programme beyond "Liberty!" and the like. At one point it looked like you were meant to think they were naïve idiots, but there was a shift in their tonal representation after they stage their revolt and are crushed. At the end of the film it is even suggested that heaven is one giant barricade full of people singing revolutionary songs - a truly terrifying prospect.




Smartipants said...

I think you have hit upon the nail the reason I refuse to see this film despite my love of revolutions, musicals, and France. I think the hype around it personally set me against Anne Hathaway forever, sadly. And I loved her in Brokeback Mountain. The same thing happened to me when I went to see Rent. Everyone raved and raved about how it would just make me cry and cry. And instead... (in the words of a great musical, A Chorus Line).. I felt nothing.

ian said...

Rent for me will always be the "Everyone has AIDS" dance number from Team America (another great musical).

I sometimes think that my professed fondness for musicals is more theoretical than actual.