One of my favourite quotes by the late Christopher Hitchens refers to the emphasis The Ten Commandments places on loving its author, God: “the idea of compulsory love”, he proclaims, “has always struck me as a little shady”. This is exactly how I feel about Les Misérables.
I saw Les Misérables having had no experience of the stage musical, beyond a faint distaste for the fanatical fandom which has surrounded the show since the ‘80s. Sceptical as I was, I reasoned that the original novel (for which I haven’t yet set aside a decade to read) is recognised as one of the great novels of the 19th century and with nearly 30 years on stage, it stood to reason that the musical must somehow have earned its reputation.
In full knowledge of its devout following, it is with no small degree of trepidation that I posit that Les Misérables is a mediocre film based on a third-rate musical. In all fairness, director Tom Hooper has done a great job with what he was given: the cinematography and staging are dramatic, the casting is mainly good and the decision to use live singing certainly brings a sense of intimacy and weight to the performances.
The problem is the source material. Of whichever parts of the film one would consider ‘songs’, almost none are written with any musical flair. The opening number, ‘Look Down’ (accompanied by a brilliantly realised set-piece in a shipyard), has a memorable refrain, but goes nowhere, merely repeating the chorus while Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe exchange words in an arbitrary series of musical notes. The song ‘Red and Black’ briefly won my attention, partly due to the strong singing of Aaron Tveit, but mainly because I realized it was channelling ‘Doe a Deer’ from The Sound of Music.
The strongest moment in the film is Anne Hathaway’s brilliant, stirring performance of Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’: a well written song with genuine musical merit. This moment was, however, completely undermined by the fact that I had absolutely no emotional investment in the character of Fantine, who, within five minutes of appearing onscreen in a workhouse, winds up destitute in a whorehouse, via no characterization beyond the information that she is a pretty, pregnant woman.
Based on its reputation, I was expecting to be deeply moved by Les Misérables, but instead I sat through the film somewhat stupefied and bemused. The fact is that the mechanics of drama necessitate tonal contrast: the action in Breaking Bad is thrilling because of its contrast with the sombre, pensive moments just as the pathos in Up is poignant because of its contrast with the general levity (no pun intended) of the rest of the film.
If, from start to finish, the viewer is hammered into submission with melancholy, they become desensitised and lose their ability to invest any emotion: the experience becomes oddly tepid. This is precisely what happens in Les Misérables, and consequently, the unseemly feeling is elicited that you are being coerced into caring, obligated to exercise your tear ducts, just because, y’know – it’s sad!
This homogenising of emotion is aggravated by the use of recitative, a style in which almost all dialogue is sung. Because of this there is, again, no contrast between speech and song, meaning that the power of singing to emphasise a scenario, heighten drama and provide narrative momentum is diluted by the banality of normal speech. Furthermore, the incongruity of mixing a few spoken lines with the sung lines creates a lot of unintentional humour. The conceit of using song within film works because there is a clear distinction between the music and the dialogue; blurring this line draws unflattering attention to the artifice of the musical and makes for some fairly ridiculous moments.
Speaking of which, Les Misérables’ only humour is delivered by an unscrupulous landlord and his wife (played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter in Sweeney Todd-mode), and while they are a welcome respite from the general self-seriousness, their presence is completely incongruous, jarring with the mood of the rest of the film.
The mystery behind Les Misérables’ popularity deepened when I learnt that the musical, originally a French concept album, was almost universally panned by critics in France, and again on its UK release in 1985. Tellingly, almost every fanatical disciple of Les Misérables I’ve come across has been one since a young age, when they were perhaps less discerning; I know I’m still fond of some pretty regrettable films I grew up with, so I suspect that even as an adult, the nostalgia of such an aggressively ‘emotional’ film is difficult to shake off.
I would hate to rain on the parade of the ‘Les Mis’ fan club, but as an admirer of great musicals, from West Side Story, to Oliver!, to any Disney film, I can’t help feeling that, contrary to the consensus of hoards of indoctrinated fans, we don’t have to love Les Misérables: we can do better than this.