Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Don’t lose the Wonder

on February 15, 2013

WARNING! THIS IS VERY LONG!  I read recently in Tim Chester’s Will You Be My Facebook Friend? (enjoying it so far btw) that nobody reads blog posts longer than 400 words. Nobody ever told me this before, and given that I tend to read anything if I’m interested in the subject, I’m in a quandary about it.  Is it true?  Does that mean this is too long, at a shocking 5 times the length? I am verbose – possibly even garrulous, but as I think I’ve discussed before, this wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t.  So if you have an opinion on long posts, leave me a note and let me know.  I’ve put subheadings in to make it (hopefully) easier to look at.

Finally, my review

209751_492987144053413_655733065_oA while ago I promised you my thoughts on the film of Les Misérables and I’m finally getting round to sharing them. Other post ideas and distractions such as illness (I’m not really the fragile flower I sometimes come across, but I suffer – relatively mildly – from several chronic conditions which mean that life is put on hold periodically whilst I deal with the latest bout) got in the way in the meantime, but today I’m able to get down to it.

In a nutshell, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. As you’ll know from my previous post, I’m a long-term fan of the stage show and my desire to see the film was partly to enjoy the action once more (and more cheaply and conveniently than going to London) and partly out of interest to see how it would translate onto screen.

It’s important to say from the outset that, as a film of the stage show (I never know whether to call it a musical or an opera!) it must, in my opinion be compared to that version. There have been films made in the past based on the book which could be approached differently, and the stage show itself could also be reviewed in comparison the the book (which I’ve only read part of) but this film really needs to be looked at in the context of its immediate parent. Ultimately I think the translation worked rather well. If you’re familiar with it from the theatre, you’ll know that the set is fairly minimal so that it can all be worked out on a revolving floor in the centre of the stage, using light and image projections onto the floor to add extra effects. The audience sees one side of the set at a time (and one assumes that on the other side any necessary alterations are being made in time for the next 180 degree revolution), and at times the set rotates to reveal a still tableau which can be as effective as action or a song in other parts of the show. One example is after the barricade scene when the audience (whose perspective has been from the revolutionaries’ side) is then able to see the fallen – without wanting to give too much away! – on the other side. These still images are pretty iconic and I had my concerns about how the film would be able to replicate or replace them, but I was really impressed with the way it was done.

Obviously there were many differences in the way the film was set, but I felt that all of them worked well and took advantage of the medium and space available. Probably the most striking, just because it’s the opening scene, is when we see Jean Valjean (Prisoner 24601) and his fellow-convicts at work as they lament their fate in the song Look Down. On stage they are lined up breaking rocks, but on screen they are faced with the immense and altogether more visually spectacular feat of hauling a huge ship into the dry dock. This scene allows for a useful detail to be included, of the prison officer Javert commanding Valjean to “Fetch the sail” which involves the use of his unexpected strength to lift the ship’s mast, thus contextualising Javert’s later comparison of “Monsieur Madeleine” to the prisoner he once knew, when he sees him free a man trapped under a cart.

Another interesting feature of the film which differed from the theatre was in the reinsertion of the “fourth wall”. On stage, some of the narrative (especially scene-setting) is directed specifically at the audience as if they were somehow involved in the action. Highly appropriate for the theatre, but not so much for the cinema, so instead, the action is contrived to suit the conversational tone of the libretto by providing a new audience. So, for example, Gavroche’s How do you do… piece is directed at the surprised passengers in a carriage on which he’s hitched a ride, as he hangs upside down and addresses them through the window!

The cast

The casting was, I thought, very very good. I know people always have their ideals in mind when a star-studded film version of something well-known is made (and I’m probably more guilty of that than anyone!), but really everyone there was utterly believable and expressed the same characters I’ve seen in stage. In fact a couple of them seemed so familiar (eg Grantaire, Gavroche) that I was surprised later, when I looked them up on IMDb, that I hadn’t seen them in anything else. Sasha Baron-Cohen was a magnificent Thénardier, suddenly acquiring a French accent whenever he was called upon to speak to his social superiors and perpetually mistaking Cosette’s name in the way I first saw done by Matt Lucas at the 25th anniversary concert. Helena Bonham-Carter brought her own style to the character of his wife (ironic that the two coarsest characters should be played by actors with double-barrelled surnames!) although I don’t expect anyone to match the standard set by the wonderful Jenny Galloway who has played Madame Thénardier in two anniversary concerts as well as on stage. On the subject of past cast members, I thought it was a lovely and fitting gesture to include two original cast members: Colm Wilkinson, the first Jean Valjean, as the Bishop of Digne and Frances Ruffelle, originator of the part of Eponine, as one of the “Lovely Ladies”. It was also a touching change to include the Bishop in Valjean’s final moments, in place of – and really more appropriately than – Eponine, as I believe happens in the book.

Many of the lead cast, such as Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, have roots in musical theatre and from the documentaries and interviews I’ve seen seem to have enjoyed the innovative recording style of singing directly as the scenes were filmed, as opposed to lip-syncing to a previously recorded track. Only Russell Crowe seemed slightly discomfited by the requirement to sing and act simultaneously – and, although this sounds a lot like the Grade 6 piano examiner who sarcastically remarked on my report that I was not yet confident playing with both hands together, I mean it as much less of a criticism than it might seem! Crowe’s ability and versatility as an actor has been called into question in the past but I am really quite an undemanding viewer and generally very easy to please on that score (I even watch things with Keanu Reeves in and suspend my disbelief!). In this case, however, I just felt that whilst the other leads expressed their characters’ various emotions through their songs, Crowe delivered his two solos (Stars and Suicide) beautifully but somewhat impassively. But it’s about context really – I don’t think I’d have noticed at all if his co-stars hadn’t been quite so good at it! And it’s all a question of taste, because the friend I was with said she much preferred his delivery to the others’ “messing about with the timing and rhythm”!

The slight down side

My one criticism was that almost all the songs had been curtailed in one way or another. I assume that this was to ensure the running time didn’t exceed 2h30, but then again, they found time to include the new (and in my traditionalist opinion wholly unnecessary) Suddenly. For the long-standing, soundtrack-owning, libretto-memorising Les Mis fan, the omission of some of the less well-known verses – including my own favourite, the introduction to Master of the House in which the customers discuss Thénardier, his history and the quality of his establishment (enjoy this LEGO version by Codex Productions!) – is always going to be a disappointment and make it feel more like one of those highlights albums, rather than the full deal.

And in addition to the missing verses, there was some talking in it! “But it’s a film,” said one of my Facebook friends. “I found it weird that they didn’t speak some of the lines, when they were too short to be tuneful.” The fact is, as I said before, that it’s not just a film with songs in it, like a Disney cartoon, or even the film of a musical, like Mamma Mia, but the film of Les Misérables, which contains no spoken lines. If I went to see a film of La Bohème, for example, I wouldn’t expect the actors to start speaking in the middle of a scene. I think it detracts from the essential character of the performance when the clever, rhythmical verse sung by Valjean’s arresting officer, outside the Bishop’s palace, almost interrupted by the Bishop’s calm “That is right,” is replaced with “So you expect me to believe that the Bishop gave you all this stuff, do you?” (or words to that effect). So that annoyed me slightly, more because I couldn’t see the point of it than anything.

The Wonder

On the whole, my reaction to this film is an entirely positive one. At this point, I have to make a confession which will shock some of you:

I didn’t cry.

Sorry for that bombshell, but it’s commonly believed amongst my acquaintance that I have a faulty gene when it comes to emotional response. Unlike most of my friends, I don’t weep my way through my children’s school plays and concerts, and my view of the final scenes of Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel or Love Story is not obscured by tears. (On the other hand when I do cry it’s quite a good gauge of early pregnancy, and Southern Daddy knew something was amiss when he found me sobbing in front of the 2002 Winter Olympic opening ceremony, blubbering “They’re all just so patriotic!”) But that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel emotion during the film, whatever Chris Evans said about anyone who didn’t cry at it being made of stone. There were some amazingly touching moments, especially Javert’s surveyal of the fallen revolutionaries after the barricade scene, and the amazing reinterpretation of the final Do You Hear The People Sing? (sometimes I really get what CGI is for!)

Before I saw the film, I read a scathing review written by someone who didn’t like it at all (apparently there are such people). I wanted to link to it but I can’t find it now. It was vicious – the reviewer criticised the plot for not making sense (I think he needed to listen harder, “the text is everything” as we are endlessly told as singers, and in the film it is not unclear) and the music for being uninteresting and lacking complexity. Most of all, he was attacking the audience’s emotional response – he was at a loss to account for it and felt that it was dishonestly evoked by sentimental musical arrangements and exaggerated emotion within the story. So what’s new? Isn’t that what the film industry has been doing since its inception? Even before “talkies”, themed music was played to create an impression and a reaction.

The impression I gleaned from the tone of the article, and its ironic suggestion of other, superior, films and musicals to see instead, was rather one of snobbery. Perhaps – once again – I’m naïve, but I don’t see the difference between watching something which is simplistic or “low-brow” and something which is critically acclaimed and acknowledged as a creative triumph –  if I’m enjoying it. I’m no music scholar, and couldn’t tell you what constitutes a “complex” and “interesting” score, but I know that I admire it when everyone sings their own song, separately, and then suddenly they’re all singing them together and to my amazement they all fit! I love the sound you get when you have ten singers lined up on stage, belting out their parts, whether it’s in Beauty and the Beast or Die Walküre. I love the clever way lyricists play with language – whatever language that happens to be. And the whole is presented with such flair and excitement as to enchant the audience and catch them up in it. If you don’t feel that then you’re either much more skilful than me (I think there’s a certain sense in which you always marvel a bit at what you can’t do yourself) or you’ve become hardened to it in a belief that it’s somehow more grown-up to be critical than to have fun. But I’d rather keep my childish amazement, and never lose the Wonder.

Thankful for…

My trip to the doctor today revealing that the worries I had were unfounded

Southern Daddy being able to work from home today

The new ticket machines having finally been installed in my local Metro station (explanation here)!

The Cross of Christ by John Stott, which I’m reading for Lent

The Bookworm settling into Guides so quickly and being keen to go on camp with them in June (we had to sign up tonight)

A lovely meal and DVD yesterday evening (we watched Noises Off which is based on the play of the same name and almost as funny as when we saw it at the theatre a few years ago.  We liked it so much we’re going to use some of our Christmas Theatre Tokens to see it again in April!)

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