Les Misérables: The tears test
It’s been sending viewers into convulsions in cinemas across Britain. So could confirmed weeper Charlotte Philby control herself? And would iron-hearted Tom Peck melt? We sent these two Independent writers to find out what all the fuss is about
Charlotte Philby is a writer at The Independent with a weekly column on motherhood in The Independent Magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2013 Cudlipp award for excellence in popular journalism for her undercover investigative work, and writes for various cultural magazines.
Friday 18 January 2013
Charlotte Philby: Weeping
"By the finale, I was in full-scale blubbering mode"
Before we start, you should know that I’m the second biggest Les Misérables fan in the world. I’ve seen it on stage 11 times, own the CD, video and piano score. I thought I was the world’s biggest Les Mis fan until a colleague pointed out that Sally Frith from Gloucestershire has seen the stage version 957 times at a cost of £50,000, and mused: “I think it is one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen.”
I’m also a weeper. The first time I saw Beaches I practically needed intravenous fluids to rehydrate my body after the tears shed.
So when I heard people were openly blubbing and rolling in the aisles with grief at screenings of the new film version of Les Mis, I wasn’t surprised. Who wouldn’t weep? Except, perhaps, my heart-of-stone colleague, Tom – although I held quiet hopes that he, too, would soon succumb.
It started well. The theatre was not jam-packed, but that’s what you get for seeing a musical blockbuster in the middle of afternoon at an independent cinema. The small crowd was mainly women (I did spot one lone gent, but he mysteriously vanished an hour and a half in and was never seen again). Expectations were high.
As the opening bars sounded, there was a collective intake of breath. We Les Mis flag-wavers were preparing ourselves for an emotional hose-down, while Tom’s groan was the expression of a man who’s just been kicked somewhere delicate.
There is something about Les Mis. It got me from the first time I saw it, aged 7, when I left believing that deep down I was actually Cosette.
By the time I reached puberty I’d re-imagined myself as the tragic, angst-ridden also-ran Eponine. To this day – 15 years after my school music teacher banned “On My Own” from my singing classes – I know every single word and note to every single song, including the obscure crap ones, and every one of them still has the power to move me to tears. As did this film, although for different reasons.
That’s not strictly true. I did cry – proper emotional tears – twice. The first, when Fantine dies, was just a whimper. The second, towards the end when Valjean is croaking it in the convent, bordered on sobs. By the time the chorus took hold in the finale it had escalated to full-scale blubbering. Because the music (if you can ignore the voices murdering it on-screen) is too powerful to resist.
My colleague Tom, for the record, was too busy perfecting his “Am I dead or just trapped in a waking nightmare?” face.
It is no secret that the stage musical version of Les Misérables is a crude reduction of Victor Hugo’s magnum opus. That’s not the point. You watch the stage show and you don’t care that the story’s ropey because so much else is so good: the singing, the flag-waving, the air-punching; the way Javert’s voice trembles though the auditorium!
So yes, I cried at the film, and I’m thoroughly heartened that so many others did too. But we should all have been sobbing uncontrollably and continuously. Les Mis has it all going on: revolution, good versus evil, personal sacrifice, and a bolshy street-urchin named Gavroche.
I’ll be going to see the stage version again soon, if only to cleanse myself of the memories of this disappointing film. (And I’m taking Tom with me.)
Tom Peck: Sleeping
"Is that sound coming out of Crowe’s nostrils?"
Of all the truly hellish noises that reverberated around screen one that afternoon, one stands out as by far the most disturbing. It was the insipid sniffling that kept coming from my immediate right. By way of context, Charlotte’s grandfather, Kim, is a man who failed to crack in the face of long days and nights of interrogation at the hands of MI6, and here she is, sobbing away at the sight of a factory seamstress getting an unwanted crew cut.
If musical theatre divides opinion, Les Misérables the movie should unite it. For non-believers, it is of course grotesque. But for believers, of which I am one, it is nothing less than blasphemy.
As in Hugo’s novel, there is a 78-metre-high Eléphant de la Bastille here, but it is not merely dans la chambre, it is ramming its giant tusks down your earholes. This is a musical in which every last bit of banal chitchat is sung not spoken, and yet its protagonists simply cannot sing.
Russell Crowe is the worst offender, by some margin. Is that sound actually coming out of his nostrils? If you happen to know, and love, the song “Stars”, imagine it being sung by Clive James in the style of a Westlife tribute act.
To make matters worse, each time anyone does break into song, the camera is by turns hung from their nose or rammed down their alimentary canal. It is like watching Peep Show, only with a lot fewer jokes, and Mark and Jeremy have been replaced by Gladiator and Wolverine swapping views on social justice in rhyming couplets to the tune of a radio jingle for dishwashers.
No one can really be blamed for the eccentricities of the original musical repeating themselves here. One minute Trotskyite-in-waiting Marius is rampaging round central Paris like the Pink Floyd guitarist’s son, the next he is rapturously in love with the first posh girl he lays eyes on. Choosing between Cosette and Eponine is like choosing between Kate Middleton and Cheryl Cole, and a man who plumps for the St Andrews history of art graduate is simply not on the side of the wretched poor.
Likewise it is impossible to ignore that Enjolras, his partner in crime and the last great hope for a free France, looks quite extraordinarily like Neil, the smug, cake-baking Swindon branch manager from The Office.
But however many hundreds of millions Les Misérables takes at the box office, it should not be ignored that a whopping chunk of this will have been spent with painful reluctance. On our visit, the male half of the couple in front of us in the queue turned towards his excited partner and grunted: “Right, let’s go and watch the most depressing film of all time.”
For him, and others, certain lines punctuate. “Look down, there’s 20 years to go,” is a prophetic warning right there in scene one. It is not long before the boyishly haircutted Fantine reminds us all that she is not alone in having a dream that life would be so different from this hell she’s living. By the end, and accompanied by more sobbing, Hugh Jackman sits in his chair and begs: “Let me die”. How apt.
Anyone who’s ever been moved close to tears by a West End show, particularly this one, will know that it’s because its songs are very moving when sung well.
This on the other hand, is at best boring, at worst, a rip-off.
David Lister's weepies:
This Robert Redford-directed Oscar winner, strangely underrated, shows a teenager’s painful realisation of what is really troubling him, in all its rawness and poignancy.
Vanessa Redgrave’s world-weary face in the final frames, with its resignation to her coming demise, memories of family lost and mistakes made, is the trigger for a release of audience emotion.
The two shirts carefully placed over each other, Heath Ledger’s detachment from his family, the death of his lover, all contribute to the pain at the end of this ground-breaking movie.
From an earlier age, but Jon Voight cuddling Dustin Hoffman’s dead body on a Greyhound bus was, in its day, similarly ground-breaking and similarly tear-jerking.
Yes! Bill Murray’s gradual realisation of what makes a rounded human-being and a proper relationship, manages to be both funny and recognisable enough to provoke tears amid the laughter.
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