24601 – Les Miserables

It’s crazy how we define ourselves by numbers so often these days. Numbers find their way into our lives as restrictions, boundaries, descriptions and ultimatums. To be a fight attendant you must be a certain height, dieters seek a number on the scale, people are obsessed by clothing sizes and how they differ between labels, students finishing year 12 receive an ATAR score which determines what university course they get into, there are age limits for drinking, driving and most public pools have an age you must be to swim unsupervised. And these are but a few examples. In some cases, age specifics are sensible, others, maybe not. But defining one’s self by a number is, for the most part, unhelpful, especially considering that number may grow, fluctuate or change over time.

Last night, I saw Les Miserables, the story of 24601, or Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner in a pre-revolutionary France, who breaks parole but is touched by kindness and God, and spends the rest of his life doing good deeds while running from the watchful eye of police officer, Javert (Russell Crowe). The Victor Hugo novel became the one of the most watched musicals of all time, and there was much anticipation for this film production that was released in Australia on Boxing Day.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of music theatre. However, back in 2005, I saw an amateur production of Les Mis and was far from taken by the music or the story. Based on this production and my thoughts thereafter, Les Mis has always been a bit of an in joke in my family, as we laughed in awe of how such a depressing, bland musical could ever have become so popular. In retrospect, I think I was too young to see the complexities and depth of the superficially simple plot, and I suspect by the time the production I saw came to a close, it was probably a late night and I just wanted to be in bed. The show is very lengthy, as is the movie. But the screening we went to last night only started at 10:30pm, and I was most certainly kept away for the film’s full duration.

What struck me about the film were a few key decisions made by the production crew, which I’d read about before seeing the film itself. Firstly, the casting was (almost) impeccable, and was broadly international in that it was far from a Hollywood/strictly British cast. With leads from Australia, the US and the UK, the search really had gone out for the best of the best. The casts came from a range of backgrounds and experiences, with Anne Hathaway as Fantine (reprising a role her own mother played when Hathaway was a child), musical theatre-famed Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks (my personal favourite), and new faces including the superb Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, with an almost blank entry on imdb. Character actors Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Sir and Madame Thenardier stayed true to their roots, and the majority of the cast were able to sing in tune, with clear diction and didn’t make me want to block my ears. That’s pretty good for a blockbuster movie.

Secondly, the fact that the cast sang live, to the camera is very impressive. I’m a stickler for badly-sunk television or film, as it just takes the picture so far away from anything actually authentic being portrayed. But in Les Mis, each lead was fitted with an ear piece so that the orchestrated score was played to them as they sang. In my opinion, this made the movie. It is both thoughtful and effective, and the fact that the actors sang live on set showcases their talent and their adaptability. If the character was sobbing, their singing was disrupted, but in a good way. Things were incredibly fluid and the immediate emotions were complete and whole, like they should be – and would be, on stage.

Finally, the big budget of the film made it possible to have a really large ‘ensemble’, or cast. The opening scene where we meet Jean Valjean as a prisoner, the Work Song is sung and the choreography (if you could call it that, perhaps movement is more suitable) is performed, as well as the scenes of the barricades are vast and people-strong. I don’t know how realistic that first scene is, but it’s certainly visually spectacular.

I wasn’t expecting much from the film to be honest, so I was pleasantly surprised at the talent and the production overall. If you’re not a fan of nonstop singing, maybe it’s not your thing. See The Hobbit instead?

Now I’m just hoping for that rumoured stage revival in 2013. A new year, another number. Just wait 365 days and that will change again, too. Here’s to the last 23 hours of 2012.

  1. Gershwin's Ghost said:

    This sounds great. I’ll have to check it out some time.

    Wishing you-and all your readers-less mis and more fun in 2013!

  2. BroadwayorBust said:

    I agree-it’s a blast from go to woe! If you can’t enjoy and appreciate this one, you must be permanently ‘les mis’.

    Viva la musica!

  3. Libby said:

    So glad to read this… I couldn’t agree more. Having loved the music since seeing the show in the 80’s – I was nervous about how it would translate to the screen. But it was a joy to see the way cinema and the exceptional cast offered us the opportunity to expand the characters and to really see them in their very human stories. The movie makes the musical accessible to so many more people – do you hear the people sing?

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