As a film, classic stage musical Les Miserables doesn’t quite cut it, although the grand musical numbers suite the big screen.
There are many things about Les Miserables that make it a phenomenal stage musical. First, there’s the timeless story - a classic tale of love and hope in a time of turmoil. Then, the music: an emotional score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, taken to heart the world over through school choirs and the stardom of Susan Boyle.
But, as Phantom of the Opera showed, what works on stage does not necessarily work on screen. British director Tom Hooper’s film, now showing in Phnom Penh, was adapted from a musical that was adapted from a historical novel – and it shows. Characters and story lines are reduced to nothing more than small sketches and even the all-star cast can hardly hold it together.
Many characters seem superficial: there are too many people in the story and audiences barely get to know them before they die. In the end the story is so dragged down by heroic themes of redemption, duty, injustice and love that melodrama takes over what genuinely moving scenes there are.
It might have helped if Hooper was less focused on staying true to the musical, a tactic that might have pleased hardcore fans of the stage drama, but also highlighted the musical’s many flaws, that become all too transparent on screen.
The movie, like the musical, is completely sung through without spoken dialogue, and coupled with Hooper’s decision to focus entire scenes on an actor’s facial emotions – I couldn’t help but feel at some points that I was watching MTV. When Hooper does allow his cameras to zoom out, the sets are beautifully grand and intricate with historical detail.
Making actors sing live on set, however, was one of the director’s better decisions for the film. As Fantine, the poverty-stricken mother who turns to prostitution to save her child, Anne Hathaway delivers the signature musical number I Dreamed A Dream with memorable conviction - an Oscar nod would come as no surprise. And Hugh Jackman is convincing as redeemed ex-convict Jean Valjean, who risks his life to provide for Fantine’s orphaned daughter Cosette; while the rest of the Hollywood ensemble - Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Radmayne, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen - give vocal performances that are surprisingly solid. English musical theatre star Samantha Barks reprises her West End role as Eponine along with Colm Wilkinson, the original stage Jean Valjean, who takes the role of the old Bishop.
While Les Miserables might not be the greatest start to the cinema-going year, its grandiosity and big numbers make it a film that really needs the big screen to do it justice. For lovers of the form, the music still packs a punch and the drama of the story will have fans nearing the edge of their seats, albeit not enough to give a standing ovation.