~ Posted by Jo Caird, December 7th 2012
As I sat in the darkness at the world premiere, waiting to hear the first chords of Tom Hooper’s new movie “Les Misérables”, I couldn't help but feel nervous. “Les Mis" has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. The show opened at the Barbican in 1985, adapted and directed by my father, John Caird, and Trevor Nunn, a few months before my third birthday.
I’ve seen it five or six times in the last 27 years, beginning when my brothers and I were taken to the Palace Theatre. I was nine and remember being enthralled by "Do You Hear the People Sing?” I wasn’t so impressed by Cosette, the little girl the former convict Jean Valjean rescues from the clutches of the cruel Thenardiers. I told my father that a better name for her would be Courgette, as she responds to what’s happening around her with about as much spirit as a vegetable. During the school holidays I would spend days observing my father rehearse takeover casts for the London and Broadway productions. At the age of 14, sitting next to him in the darkness of the empty stalls at the Palace Theatre, I developed a painful crush on the actor playing Marius, the show’s romantic hero.
It was while working on the musical over the years that my father met my two stepmothers. The first, Frances Ruffelle, created the role of Eponine (the young woman who facilitates Marius and Cosette’s romance) in the original London production. The second, Maoko Imai, was in the Tokyo production, playing Fantine, who turns to prostitution to support her daughter Cosette. Frances has a glorious cameo in Hooper’s film as one of the “Lovely Ladies” who prompt Fantine’s (played by Anne Hathaway) fall from grace. One of the pleasures of the premiere was hearing the cheers of the current West End cast whenever the camera alighted on "Les Mis" alumni. Many are in minor parts, but Samantha Barks (Eponine) and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche, the urchin who comes to Marius's aid) reprise their West End roles.
I was expecting to be dazzled, and at moments I was. It’s spectacular when the convicts haul a sailing ship into dry dock or when the camera pulls away from a tight close-up on Hugh Jackman, playing Valjean (pictured), to reveal a breathtaking mountain panorama beneath him. Hooper’s decision to record all the singing live during shooting has paid off: the cast are right there in the moment and the audience are there with them. This technique is at its most powerful when Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream”. Her performance should win her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Still, it felt like something had been lost. Watching the stage version as a child—and even as an adult more recently—I found the ensemble singing almost overwhelming. Hooper’s clever use of close-up during the solo numbers may grant access to characters’ inner lives, but the crowd scenes feel underpowered. In the stage show, the students’ rebellion seems vital; in the film, the boys on the barricade are dwarfed by their surroundings—their fight seems hopeless.
I was ready to love this "Les Misérables". If I'm honest though, I'm secretly glad that I didn't.
Jo Caird is a freelance writer and editor