Can you hear the people sing?

Éponine (Barks) and Marius (Redmayne)

I feel like I should begin by apologising: I’m sorry that I wasn’t excited about seeing Les Mis. To be fair, I did get all giddy when, less than an hour before the screening, I discovered that Mr Eddie Redmayne was playing Marius (and I still haven’t the faintest notion as to how that fact escaped my notice) and I was intrigued as to how the swashbuckling Hugh Jackman would fair in the emotionally demanding and physically exhausting role of Jean Valjean. However, I wasn’t consumed with anticipation at the prospect of endless grimy faces and the occasional corpse providing the basis for most of the panning shots.

I think, or rather I know, that I had preconceived ideas concerning what the film would hold. The stage show chugging along in the West End for the past few years sparked a national tour a couple of years ago and I saw the production at The Palace Theatre in Manchester. To be completely honest, I found the whole thing a little over-done, too polished – overtly professional. The constant struggle of who could out-sing who grew tiring, as did the operatic performance. I mean, considered the practicalities of singing  songs in good voice in the various unfortunate situations in Les Misérables; as a labouring slave, outside on your own (see what I did there?) in the rain or in the midst of a revolution. Wouldn’t you be too preoccupied to concentrate on your vocal vibrato or enforcing the diction of every single word?

As someone who has taken singing lessons and been musically examined for the past six years, I can’t say that I’d be too bothered about employing my diaphragm-breathing techniques if I was under fire from French soldiers clad in the finest of uniforms. I think I’d be keeping my head down. And this is why I was so utterly pleasantly surprised at this new film. The raw emotions – be them rage, sadness, loneliness, victory – were not orchestrated, as one might have expected them to have been. It seems that we may have the decision by producers to do live takes of songs as opposed to dubbing them post-production, to thank for that breath-snatching, heart-wrenching performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway for which she has deservedly earned herself a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination in the same category.

Yes, Russell Crowe’s in-role singing as Javert is questionable at times, but in a way this gruffness fits his character profile. Personally I’ve always found Cosette a disappointing character (if I had the choice I’d play Éponine over Cosette any day) but Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of her, played opposite Eddie Redmayne’s Marius was suitably simpering – the perfect representation of the “love at first sight” ideal. Samantha Barks deserves a mention as Éponine too. “On My Own” – which has forever been my favourite song from a show of classics – was executed with levels of despair leading to ultimate resignment to rival any west end lead. The raindrops blended with Bark’s tears in a scene which had the audience welling up themselves. My only real gripe would be the length; at 2 hours 37 minutes it’s a bit of a swallow-an-afternoon film, but your afternoon will be all the better for it, believe me.

Postscript: I was very flattered to have my writing published on both The Vagenda and Manchester’s Finest this week. The former is a piece about my personal experiences of having short hair entitled “Keeping it Short” and the latter a review of the current exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery “The First Cut”.

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2 thoughts on “Can you hear the people sing?

  1. I’m not sure why, but my gut reaction on the news of the release of Les Mis was one of eye-rolling. I don’t know why. Blame snobbery, perhaps. I just assumed that it wouldn’t be a film that I would enjoy. However, having read your review (and spoken to several close friends who enjoyed it), it seems that I shall have to revise my opinion, and perhaps seek out a cinema to see it!
    I particularly liked your observations from a singing point of view – particularly considering your own training and technical knowledge.
    Oh and another round of congratulations on the two articles. Both as thoughtful and well expressed as I assumed they would be. xx

  2. My reaction was very different! I absolutely adore musicals, ever since my grandma introduced me to Joseph! I’m hoping to put on a school musical next year too, so I was so excited when I heard about Les Mis. I’ve never seen it on stage, but it’s always been something I’ve hoped to do, and that still is the case. I loved every minute of the film. Anne Hathaway could not have been more incredible, and her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream reduced me to tears. By the end of the film there wasn’t a dry eye in sight, everyone walked out sniffing!

    P.s. Huge congrats on the two articles!

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