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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Shaken Not Stirred

Whishaw and Craig as Q and 007

Skyfall

If there’s one brand, one film franchise, one name even, that sums up the very best of British creativity and industry (and which holds no relation to anyone of a royal title or an olympian) it is Bond. James Bond. Oh the images are filling my mind and I’m making no attempt to close the flood gates; martinis, Aston Martins, sophisticated black suits. Femme fatales, incredible dresses, guns, blood, Judi Dench, gadgets, the unmistakable theme tune. Fast cars, crazy billionaires, sharks and the hairiest escapes known to man.

It is perhaps serendipitous that I first began writing this post weeks (alright, two and a bit weeks) before the amusement of the Queen’s film cameo at the opening ceremony, where Bond deservedly made the entrance of the century to the roars of 80,000 people. Serendipitous as I had the unplanned pleasure of attending The Barbican’s current exhibition “Designing 007: 50 Years Of Bond Style”. It was, quite easily, the very best I have ever attended.

It was one of those afternoons that wasn’t mapped out and jam-packed with events; my family and I were to see the double bill of the plays “South Downs” and “The Browning Version” at the Harold Pinter Theatre and then take it from there. On exiting someone suggested a leisurely stroll from the West End, down Fleet Street and up to EC2 would offer the perfect opportunity to walk off the false sense of tiredness that descends in the heat of the theatre. It was clearly meant to be as my brother, utilising the wonderful invention that is the mobile phone, booked tickets enough for the four of us as we stood outside the stage door and no sooner had the crowds descended to queue for cabs than we were marching off into the distance.

Now, I am a Bond fan in the way that one whiff of a royal engagement gives way to a nation of crown lovers. I’m not a hardcore Bond brainbox but I’ve always enjoyed the slick Britishness (now I’m really not making sense) of the films and delight in the intricacies of the costume design in particular. Having not watched anything Bond related for a considerable amount of time therefore, the section of my brain reserved for the very best things in life was immediately saturated with the world of espionage the moment I stepped through the double doors into the first stage of the exhibition.

The Barbican had clearly made use of someone trained in the art of creating a practical, memorable and ultimately enjoyable memorabilia exhibit fit for public consumption. The level of detail exercised across the entire display was so scrupulous that upon exiting the final of the three stages of the spectacle (which was held across three floors of The Barbican requiring tickets to be retained and stamped on entry into each new level) I glanced down at my ticket only to smile at the numbers “007”; made up of the three consecutive stamps I had received.

My personal favourite of the outfits on show was Eva Green’s glorious evening dress, worn for her role as Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. In contrast, I was appalled to discover that the ragged black dress donned by Olga Kurylenko as Bond’s accomplice Camille Montes in Quantum of Solace was in fact couture Prada and worth several thousands of pounds! On that note, was I the only one underwhelmed by Sévérine, Skyfall’s obligatory Bond girl? Without giving too much away, I like to think that her character was written without any real solidity to enforce the strong theme of the character relationship between Bond and M. Judi Dench triumphed, as did Ben Whishaw as Q who shall be returning to grace our screens in series 2 of The Hour TONIGHT on BBC2 at 9pm. I thoroughly recommend both The Hour (series 1 of which I wrote about here) and Skyfall – both are rich in glamour, espionage and good old-fashioned wit.

Ben Whishaw as Q

Q

Cinematography

War Horse

For me, a visit to the cinema has always been something of a treat. Only rarely do I see a film when it has just been released – with the matters of finding the time to go, finding a film I really want to see, finding the perfect companion with which to watch it and justifying the cost of the tickets all coming into play. In fact, the last film I saw in a cinema setting was Jane Eyre which I posted about the week of my seeing it in September 2011. Gosh, how time flies! This time the setting and plot were altogether very different – with War Horse being the film that hankered for my attention and which caused me to give in and make that seemingly bi-annual cinema visit. I can honestly say that I was not disappointed.

It is unusual for me to see something in which I am not aware of who the lead role is played by – but War Horse was one such  film. Jeremy Irivine plays Albert “Albie” (to his friends) Narracott who forms a close bond with a horse he names Joey – bought by his father to plough the land on the family farm despite the colt not being  a shire horse. As many of you will know, Albie and Joey are separated when war breaks out – only to be finally re-united at the very end of the story. Obviously the large chunk I’ve neglected to comment on contains all the nitty gritty scenes of the First World War in action, with some superb acting by two of my favourite actors – Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, he of that coat two summers ago!) and Tom Hiddleston.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that Mr Spielberg – hats off to him – had kept remarkably close to the original novel by the renowned children’s author Michael Morpurgo, which I feel really kept the morals which are a strong theme throughout the tale grounded. Hope, trust, loyalty, solidarity and courage. I actually had the privilege of hearing Mr Morpurgo speak, two years ago, about his experiences of being an author and about the inspiration behind his works. The two hours I spent in his presence were two of the most insightful, inspiring and valuable of my life and many of the things he said have stayed with me since.

I feel it is testament to his great skill as a writer that only a very small number of changes were made when transferring his novel from a manuscript onto the big screen. The result is a modern masterpiece – the kind of truly successful collaboration which only occurs when two people come together with the same goals and the vision of creating something powerful, and in this case visually stunning and quite spectacular. In contrast, I’m saddened to say that I was disappointed with another film which had been critically acclaimed for it being one of the best of the year.

The adaptation of John Le Carré’s 20th Century Classic “Tinker Tailor Solider Spy” although faultless from a cinematographic point of view just wasn’t made with its audience in mind. Even when putting aside its one great fault – the difficult to follow plot line which left myself and around 85% confused about twenty minutes in (and this is a two-hour film we’re talking about) – I felt that its creators had, with their target clientèle in mind, made it too high brow for their own good. It is a great shame, especially as the likes of Colin Firth, Gary Oldman and Benedict Cumberbatch all contribute to making the cast list, after Harry Potter, Britain’s best in a while and definitely best male cast.

Compared to War Horse, Tinker Tailor offered little or no opportunity or hook to draw the audience into making an affinity with one or any of the characters. Also, the distinctly Cold War feel and the lack of emotions in the film (somewhat similar to my views on “Never Let Me Go” – if you’ve seen it you’ll probably get my gist about the characters feeling very different from the world in which they lived) made it an even less inviting tale to embrace. I think for me the main problem was that, as I did when I went to see True Grit last year, I walked into Tinker Tailor thinking it was going to be the best film I had ever seen, and it wasn’t.

I blame the media hype which whips up a frenzy of copy gushing with praise for every film released – making it increasingly difficult to separate the real ‘not to be missed’ films from the three star titles. One of my perhaps easier to keep resolutions was to get out to the cinema more this year and appreciate decent film-making. I think so far I’m not doing too badly and hope to add “The Woman in Black” onto my list of “viewed” films next weekend. If anyone has seen it please let me know your thoughts so I know what I’m in for!