© 2012 Working Title Films

Les Misérables (2012)

I’ve never seen Les Miz, as I am not very interested in stage musicals in general. I don’t even know any of the songs from the show. But I am somewhat familiar with Victor Hugo’s novel from college.  I thought I might as well see this new film adaptation, as I am not likely to see it on stage any time soon. The film is being relentlessly promoted here in Tokyo. The director and main cast came through Tokyo in October, holding a press conference at a massive venue that normally serves as a concert hall. Originally the Japan release was announced for December 28, three days after the US and the UK. That was brought up to December 21, so it could be marketed as something to see at Christmas. That decision turned out to be a wise one, as the 12 screenings today at Toho Cinemas Roppongi were completely sold out two days in advance. That is likely the case everywhere else it is showing in Japan. It’s a rather dark film to watch at Christmas, but marketing is a powerful thing.

Much has been made of the live singing used on the film. Rather than record in the studio and lip-sync to playback on the set, the actors all (supposedly) sang every take live for the camera, as a pianist off camera played into the actor’s hidden earpieces. In featurette which I I have sat through at least a dozen times as it plays before films in cinemas, the film’s creative team insist this is the first time this has ever been done. That is not strictly true, as live singing was used for the very first musical films in the 1930s, when overdubbing was not possible, and has been used in more recent films. I also suspect that some of the vocals may have been re-recorded later in the studio. Could a child actor sing a song while riding on the step at a back of a horse carriage through a chaotic street and produce a take clean enough for the final film?

Although it is not as revolutionary as claimed, the approach works well for Hugh Jackman, who is a fine singer, and especially for Anne Hathaway. Her solo “I Dreamed a Dream” alone is enough to win Hathaway an Oscar nomination, if not a win. The same method is less than successful with Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried, who don’t have the same vocal chops. Crowe seems to be putting all of his effort into looking menacing as the ruthless inspector who never forgets or forgives a crime. He is good in this regard, but his singing comes out in mumbles. I often found myself reading the Japanese subtitles to understand his lines. Seyfried looks to be putting every ounce of her powering into her fluttering vibrato, which grows wearing very fast.  Not knowing the musical, I did not know what to expect of the songs. While a few of them were beautiful and moving, some of Crowe’s song seem to be at odds with the tragic content of the story.

Although Seyfried and Crowe’s singing form the weak links in the film, there are plenty of other highlights in the cast. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter a good fun as the unscrupulous inn keeper and his wife, and once they were introduced, I kept waiting for them to reappear. The British child actors who plays Gavroche and the young Cosette are wonderful. Samantha Barks, one of the few performers to carry their role over from the stage show is, not surprisingly, probably the best singer in the film.

Computer effects shots are usually used to make well-known buildings blow up. They are put to good use in this film, where they transparently blend together sets and location shots, as well as creating dramatic transitions between the various periods of the story and pulling the camera far back to give an overview of Paris. It is hard to imagine how the final, epic shot across a giant barricade was even filmed. But it is effective because it looks real, rather than drawing attention to itself, as effects shots usually do.

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