Last night Hugh Jackman invited me back for pancakes.
Well, to be fair, he invited all of us in the auditorium. But Anne Hathaway said she’d come along too.And Russell Crowe was going to play the piano. That’s the way it is with movie stars, they’re all charisma and making you feel you’re part of it, but you’re not of course, and just when they have you eating out of their hands they’re gone, whisked away by their publicists, leaving you to go home on the tube. The members of the cast were on stage promoting the ‘Les Miz’ movie to us in the British Academy. Not that it needed much promoting; Tom ‘The King’s Speech’ Hooper has made an astounding job of guiding it to the big screen.
Perhaps he recognised that Victor Hugo’s original novel is a masterpiece that can never be matched by the addition of music, because the film version is so strong on telling the story that it eclipses the score – hard to do, when you consider that it’s virtually through-sung for well over two hours. I went to the first night of the original show when it opened at the Barbican, when it was a huge, expansive spectacle, before it was hunched up into Lloyd-Webber’s poky Palace Theatre, and I always had trouble with the music.
There are some perfectly acceptable power-ballads, along with a lot of pointlessly sung cod-operatic recitative and a couple of rumpty-tum upbeat numbers like ‘Master Of The House’ (although Hooper even manages to turn that around with clever bits of business). Then there are the lyrics; so blunt that although they tell the story well they fail to provide any elegance.
Hooper’s brave solution has been to film the sound live and not resort to dubbing, a trick only once before performed, by Peter Bogdanovich with ‘At Long Last Love’, and that proved disastrous (although to be fair, he didn’t have Hooper’s technical advantages, such as digitally erasing microphones). Here, though, the technique breathes fresh life into songs that had become almost parodic, lifting them into proper melodramatic form. He has also opened out the visuals, so that the film begins with hundreds of prisoners towing a prison hulk into dock during a storm with their bare hands, and the camera soars over the streets of Paris.
If Jackman is the lynchpin, Russell Crowe proves the surprise with a passable voice and a towering presence, literally walking along the edge of a precipice as he contemplates the fact that his obedience to the law has resulted in his failure as a human being, and he gets us over the awkward section where Valjean disappears from the screen for a while.
Bravura moments include, inevitably, the spectacular raising of the barricades, but also a three-minute long take on Hathaway’s tormented face that may well get her a nod for Best Supporting Actress. For a moment, with the appearance of Sacha Baron-Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter in full scruffy-and-mad mode, the enterprise threatens to become ‘Sweeney Todd’ until you realise that Sondheim’s lyrics micturate from a great height on this lyricist’s clunky phrasing. Although Valjean has been given a new number that’s very nearly the best thing on display.
The Glums was one of the first arena musicals, not quite an opera, not a traditional musical at all – no dancing, few duets or trios, not much colour. Hooper recognises this and uses the songs to harness the emotion of the story instead, so that after a few minutes you barely notice the singing. It’s a brilliant move, but almost anti-musical. At least there’s no fear of the M word, as there was in ‘Nine’, which resulted in the best numbers being removed in their entirety, thereby wrecking the film – although the US trailer of ‘Les Miz’ shows very little singing at all.
But the story’s the important thing here – Hugo’s theme of redemption is far more clearly delineated than in any previous version, from the priest’s absolution to Valjean’s pursuit of Cosette in his search for salvation. There’s a reason why Boublil and Schonberg never wrote anything as good again – the epic tale of love, death and civil liberty is indestructible, and Hooper has served it with immense directorial élan. Whether or not it convinces anyone who professes to hate musicals to watch it is another matter. But musicals are like westerns – if you have to think about whether you like them as a genre, you probably don’t.
Our audience roared with approval and cried for the last twenty minutes, so maybe it can revive the form. For the record, Hathaway is even more beautiful in the flesh, and Jackman has glittery-eyed stage presence that threatens to set fire to things if he stares at them hard enough.