The Oliver Observations

Five things to spot in Les Misérables

with 3 comments

I thought I’d write my second post on the new Les Misérables film directed by Tom Hopper. (Because no one else is focusing on that at the moment..)

I went to see it with some colleagues yesterday and, in common with seemingly everyone else I know posting adoring tweets and gushing Facebook statuses, I hugely enjoyed it.

Any film which takes nearly three hours to see and has the audience feeling sorry when it ends, rather than provoking mass glances at watches and clutches at bladders half-way through, must be good.
I thought the film perfectly captured the beauty and energy of the musical, combined with the grandiose epic and moral force of the novel.
It’s quite an achievement to tell a story which spans 18 years, 365 chapters, 1900 pages (or more depending on the edition), and hundreds of characters, and still make the storyline easier to follow for the audience than Love Actually.

All in all, a jolly good show.

So in a spirit of celebration, for unashamed fans of Les Misérables in whatever incarnation, here are five (spoiler-free) little things I liked, you can watch out for if you haven’t yet seen the film:

1. The Bastille Elephant

One thing I liked about the film was the way it worked in authentic 19th Century Parisian scenery, which the stage musical is understandably rather limited in doing, notably Notre Dame Cathedral (when it all got a bit Hunchback of Notre Dame with Javert clambering about on the rooftops).

The Elephant of the Bastille, suitably dilapidated, crumbling, and with a broken tusk, is also shown, with the street urchin Gavroche, who sleeps inside the elephant in the novel, seen on top of it.

The original statue stood on the site of the Bastille Prison, the storming of which in 1789 signalled the start of the French Revolution the radical students in Les Misérables hope to emulate.
It was commissioned by the Emperor Napoleon to commemorate the site of the now demolished Bastille (and his own military victories) who originally planned it to be built of bronze, melted down from captured enemy cannons.
Work began in 1810, with a full-size plaster model being completed in 1814. But with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 – itself described wonderfully if extremely tangentially in Victor Hugo’s novel – work on the bronze version was abandoned.
Despite rather sweetly being protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs, the plaster elephant was vandalised and became infested with rats over the years that followed, finally being removed in 1846 – denying it the chance to become as iconic a part of the Paris skyline as the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe.
But we can now see it recreated in all its shabby 1830s glory in Les Misérables.

Victor Hugo himself might have shed a tear. (Actually, I’m not entirely sure if Hugo would have approved of the Les Miz industry. He left directions that none of his poems should be set to music after his death, but luckily for the makers of Notre Dame de Paris, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Les Misérables amongst others said nothing about his novels.
In fact, given there were no less than three operas and a ballet based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame produced in his lifetime (one of which, by Louise Betin, he wrote the libretto for) we can assume he wouldn’t have minded seeing Les Misérables as a musical. Plus I’m sure he would have approved of the inevitable spike in sales of the novel bookshops across the world will be experiencing in the coming weeks.

2. Colm Wilkinson

Fans of the legendary Irish tenor Colm Wilkinson, who played created the role of John Valjean in the original 1985 London stage production of Les Misérables – for which the music was rewritten in a higher key to accommodate him – and played the part on many subsequent occasions such as the 10th Anniversary Concert, will be delighted to see him turn up in a small but crucial role.
(Harder to spot but also featured is an appearance from Frances Ruffelle who played Eponine in the original London production.)

I did wonder if, given a film version has been planned since at least 1988, this was a bit of a consolation prize as Wilkinson missed out on playing the main role of Valjean.

Valjean is not the only character musical theatre lovers owe Colm Wilkinson a debt of gratitude for helping create, as he also played Che on the original concept album of Evita, where his distinct voice, which somehow manages to be simultaneously husky and clear as a bell is instantly recognisable from the opening lines of ‘O What a Circus’. He also played the Phantom in the first performance of The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydmonton Festival.
More recently I enjoyed seeing him take part in another historical rebellion and come to a grisly end playing one of the instigators of The Pilgrimage of Grace, the sadly non-singing Lord Darcy, in The Tudors.

It seems fans of Les Misérables should also be grateful to Tim Rice. The story goes that the original London production team were having desperate trouble finding an actor suited to the part of Valjean, until Director Trevor Nunn asked his friend Tim Rice if he had any ideas; ‘The problem is we need someone who looks like a convict, and very strong as he needs to carry a man around on his back, but who also sings like an angel.’
Tim Rice instantly replied ‘That’s Colm Wilkinson’ – and so it came to pass.

3. Marius’ Grandfather

I was really pleased with how the film makers managed to translate the sprawling drama of Victor Hugo’s novel, full as it is of moving minor characters and sometimes frankly ludicrous coincidences, to the screen.

I was particularly pleased that they incorporated some aspects of the book not included in the stage musical, including the convent storyline, which explains where Valjean and Cosette conceal themselves for years. I think in the stage musical nearly a decade and hundreds of pages of the novel pass in a single subtitle reading ‘Paris, 9 years later’.
The film also includes Eponine and Cosette’s shared childhood, a nod towards Valjean’s miraculous underwater escape at one point, and also reincorporates Valjean and Cosette’s first meeting in the wood. (According to one story this was cut out of the London production, to Trevor Nunn’s disgust, after worries it might encourage children to talk to strangers.)

It also includes some truly gruesome depictions of the poverty described in the book – poor Fantine being forced to sell not just her hair, which you can see in any school production of the musical, but her teeth!

But I was particularly pleased Marius’ grandfather makes (I think) three very brief appearances – as he’s a great character in the novel. The nonagenarian Monsieur Gillenormand, an obsessive monarchist at odds with his revolutionary grandson, provides, like the Thenardiers, some much-needed comic relief after chapters of unrelenting misery. His anguish at his estrangement with Marius and subsequent delight at his return only adds to the readers’ hopes that Valjean can ‘Bring him home’.

Despite appearing in the original French concept album, where he and Marius sing a quick duet of reconciliation, he was cut out of the stage musical.
So I was pleased to see, however briefly, he can be spotted in the film, which also gives a little more of Marius backstory as a rich young man choosing, due to his ideals, to live amongst the poor.

[For all the people finding this post through searching for ‘Who plays Marius’ Grandfather’ and such like, the character is played by Patrick Godfrey.]

4. Alistair Brammer

I thought the entire enormous cast of the film were brilliant (with the possible exception of the extra who plays Corpse #37 whose acting I found a bit wooden) but I wanted to give a special mention to Alistair Brammer, whom I went to college with.

Alistair, a talented and amiable chap, plays the role of student revolutionary Jean Pouvaire, seen in the film decked in a blue jacket waving flags and shouting a lot, having previously played Marius in the West End.

I always thought I’d see Alistair getting his head smashed in one day, but assumed it’d be outside Roccocos Nightclub in Exeter, rather than by the bayonets of soldiers suppressing a revolution against the government of Louis Philippe in Les Misérables.

But it’s great to see him doing so well. Exeter College’s main claim to fame is no longer that it educated 50% of Dick and Dom.

5. The Song written to win an Oscar

I didn’t know there was a new song in the film until I saw it, but I shouldn’t have been surprised as only ‘original songs’ are eligible to win Academy Awards.
Having been performed on stage and TV millions of times none of the other songs would qualify as ‘original. Therefore, writing a new song in an attempt to bag an Oscar has become a tried and tested technique for film adaptations of musicals.

For example the song ‘You must love me‘ was added especially for the film version of Evita – when, sung by Madonna, it succeeded in winning the 1997 Oscar for ‘Best Original Song’.

Hoping to repeat the trick Andrew Lloyd-Webber also wrote a new song for the film adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, ‘Learn to be lonely‘ before sacrificing a possible Oscar by cutting it for artistic reasons, deciding it interrupted the flow too much.

I didn’t begrudge this addition at all as I thought the new song fitted the storyline and characters perfectly, and it’s always a pleasure to hear anything new from the trio of Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Herbert Kretzmer.
Their plan also seems to be working as they’ve received a nomination for ‘Best Original Song’. Good luck to them.

I’d urge everyone to go and see the film to enjoy a rousing musical for about the tenth the price of a West End show, which will hopefully have even the most cynical amongst us leaving the cinema humming with a spring in their step.
As the jaded Javert would say ‘My heart is stone, yet still it trembles.’

I can’t wait for the DVD to be released, when I might update this post as ‘50 things to spot in Les Misérables’. I’m very open to suggestions of moments I’ve missed.
Failing that, I’ll have to find a spare year to reread the novel for ‘500 things to spot in Les Misérables’.


3 Responses

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  1. WOW. How do you know all this stuff? Now the movie has become, like, ten times cooler to me…

    Lys Avra

    May 11, 2013 at 6:21 am

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    June 10, 2014 at 5:38 am

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