Okay, so a spoiler-free plot synopsis for those of you who, like me, have/had only the vaguest idea of what it was about. Convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is granted parole after he served twenty years because he stole a loaf of bread (really!) but skips his parole so that he can live a free life, reinventing himself as mayor of some French town. However, he is soon discovered by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) and goes on the run with Cosette, the daughter of factory worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Then a few years later, there is some political disruption culminating in the June Rebellion of France, led by Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a bunch of students and a young waif. Needless to say, shit proceeds to go down.
Firstly, if you don't like singing, just turn away now. The film is 99% singing - I'm not exaggerating - with only the odd word or phrase spoken normally, which I don't really understand. Like, go all-in or do like most musicals and spontaneously break into song. Right, now that's out of the way, let's begin.
And hey, speaking of being overrated, please step forward, Anne Hathaway. I'm not saying she's bad or that I didn't like her performance, but I think when you take a step back and look at the film from a wider perspective, for me she didn't actually stand out from everybody else. Yes, her rendition of I Dreamed A Dream was super emotional and brought a tear to my eye, but I don't feel that anyone deserves an Oscar for that alone. I won't say any more because my personal infuriation with her will come out (*coughblandcough*) but even after seeing it I'm still upset that she's the sure thing this awards season.
I think Russell Crowe has been getting a lot of unnecessary flack for his role. No, he's not a great singer, but he isn't appalling. I went in expecting Pierce Brosnan-in-Mamma Mia-esque screeching and really it wasn't that bad! But maybe that was because my expectations were really that low. Perhaps that should be my advice: expect Brosnan and it won't be awful! The rest of his performance was fine; he does villainy really quite well, probably because he has that sort of face.
But really the best performance of the film was Eddie Redmayne. I can't believe he isn't getting more recognition for his role as Marius, he was so brilliant. There was one song he did a capella where I was nearly on the floor weeping with how emotional it was. I just wasn't expecting to be so overwhelmed by his acting. He and his merry band of rebels (they're not really merry, of course) were engrossing and I wanted to wave a flag and build a barricade of furniture to help them. In particular Gavroche, the wee little street urchin, was a delight, though I think they maybe just borrowed the Artful Dodger from Oliver! that day because there seemed to be no difference in costume, accent or attitude. But I digress. The rest of the supporting cast are on top form too: Isabelle Allan as the young Cosette was just wonderful and she should have a bright career in theatre ahead of her with a voice like that. Amanda Seyfried is more than acceptable as the older Cosette; relative newcomer Samantha Barks plays her role as lovesick Eponine with grace and she delivers a heartbreaking number; and Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are predictably wonderful as a couple of innkeepers, and bring some much needed comedy to the proceedings.
But, as you may have guessed, this is not a happy film. Tom Hooper took the radical decision to record all vocals live to better enhance the performances and ensure the end songs were as raw as they could be. It really works, as for once I actually felt like singing wasn't just random in a film, but that I could feel the emotion and understand it better through song. However, there are some questionable accents, which maybe we should have predicted considering the number of non-Brits who have roles. But really, why did no-one have a word with Hugh Jackman when his singing started to sound a bit Irish... and then got more and more pronounced? And I really have no idea why Sacha Baron Cohen did a French accent when no-one else did. I know that the film is set in France and that they are all French characters but it did sound a bit odd that he was the only one.
And let's not forget, it's long. Coming in at nearly three hours, it's not an easy ride by any means. However, I think it actually adds to the effect: not only will you be emotionally drained, but you'll feel like you literally sat through the seventeeen years presented in the film until you just feel a sense of relief at the end knowing it's over, which adds to the catharsis. I do hope that is what they were going for and that wasn't just my own experience, because I've just made them sound clever for editing a film to nearly three hours, which no-one should do really. Also, they probably did overstretch it and it ended up kind of taking ages to wind down. I kept thinking, "this is the end now... oh wait, this is the end... okay, this is..." etc. It ended up dragging after the rebellion scenes and they could have probably cut it down into neater, slightly more managable size by doing something about that.
It's a beautiful film though; the cinematography really makes it feel like you're there, either nearly drowning as you try to haul a ship into dock or wading through a sewer or it gets you so close to the gunfights that you can almost smell the gunpowder. And the attention to detail is stunning, not just in sets but also in the costumes and make-up, and this is something that should be recognised. After seeing the film, where they had the budget and the time etc to do all that, I just don't understand how it could be a theatre production and have the same effect; certainly I don't see how it could be as grand and lavish, but maybe I'll just have to go to the West End and see for myself.
Verdict: As much as I enjoyed it and got very emotional, I was never 100% absorbed in it. It's like the cinematic equivalent of a teenage boy losing his virginity: it gets overexcited, it climaxes too early and too quickly and spends the remainder of the film dragging out a not-quite satisfying ending. It grabs you by the throat and emotionally punches you repeatedly for nearly three hours until you feel like you need a long lie-down to recover. And my final thought: give Eddie Redmayne some damn awards!