Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Naturalism Debate

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Most of the comments about the film Les Miserables remark that the film is too naturalistic and ‘in your face’.  A well known musical theatre performer commented that it was all rather emotional and that she would have liked it if the voices has been ‘tweaked’ a little bit in the studio after recording to make them more presentable/easy on the ear on film. Interesting.  The film’s power in its use of non-edited singing: the actors are in the moment.  Eddie Redmayne who plays Marius says the joy of this is that actors don’t therefore have to make their acting decisions 3 months before their character is in role.

Marius 1

I would also say how stange it is to talk about tweaking emotions.  Do we ‘tweak’ emotions in every day life?  No!  If we’re about to cry we don’t say ‘now hang on a moment, let me make sure I don’t upset other people and I’ll just adjust my tears.’ What is the problem with being real?  Nothing!  If we are embarrassed or somehow disgusted by the rawness of this film then we’re disgusted by the reality of the human condition and even history itself.  The historical facts of the French revolution are gritty and violent like any other battle.  The human stories of Valjean, Fantine and all the people in the street scenes are realistic – there were such people who had lives of utter misery – some of them managed to create a better world for themselves (Valjean – though only because the Bishop gave him a second chance and Valjean acted on it), but others, due to the repression of the system and the unforgiveness of others, had no chance to move away from their wretched lives.

The only voice that is not raw and not broken is Russell Crowe’s – which suits his character, Javert.  Javert becomes obsessed with hunting down Valjean purely because he is the law and there is no bending – ‘the law is not mocked’.  He cannot see that Valjean does not fit into his category of right and wrong.  His uncompromising nature is reflected in his smooth vocals.  Any doubt Javert has (and he does doubt) is seen in his face rather than heard in his vocals.

I would therefore conclude that the naturalism of this Les Mis film works and is justified – it takes courage to face the truth because once you face it you have to engage with the world and your place in it.  Once you do that – as Valjean and Fantine do, they find that their engagement with the world costs.  Facing the truth is a rough ride and the events that happen to them are life changing…what would be the purpose of ‘tweaking’ their emotional response?  Nothing, other than making it look like their characters are pretending and let’s face it, life is not a rehearsal and we can’t pretend our way through it.  The characters in Les Mis don’t.

The universality of Les Miserables

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I’d been excited about the transfer of Les Miserables from book to stage, and now to film for a while.  I’ve now seen the film and it is the best film I’ve ever seen.  I was so pleased that the reality of the characters and life at the time rang true – it was much more raw and disturbing than I’d expected, and, surprisingly untheatrical.  The characters bring a truth through song that has not been witnessed before – they are not ‘performing’ – they are living with the reality of the story.

I always thought that the reason why Les Miserables has done so well in the world theatres during its 28 year run is because the story addresses emotions and questions that ‘everyman’ asks at some point.  It is set against a severe background of poverty; scenes of which have not gone away in many countries, but even if the poverty aspect was removed, the characters are still like us in their search for forgiveness, purpose, love, recognition and peace.

I could not fault the casting in the film – none of them were sensational – all of them had the vitality and earnestness that was needed for us to relate to the characters.  The character of Javert (the police inspector on the trail of Valjean all his life) is the ambiguous character in the story – Javert believes he knows right from wrong but Valjean is a man who rocks Javert’s boat of once steadfast morals.  Russell Crowe plays Javert with heartbreaking sensitivity who in the end cannot face the fact that his version of goodness has been turned on its head by one who he thought was ‘bad’.  Crowe does brilliantly at showing how Javert grows in doubt:

Javert

and the way he sings throughout also matches his outward aim of rightness and smartness but inwardly those defiinitions are challenged.  His voice has a pure, clear tone to it and he struggles not with reaching the high notes in ‘Stars’ – as his character does not struggle in condemning Valjean – until Valjean challenges Javert’s moral position.  There is a beautiful moment in the film between Gavroche and Javert when the line between rich/poor, old/young and experience/inexperience is crossed.  Crowe’s face says it all at that point.

Gavroche

Gavroche, above, captures the innocence and courage of childhood, matched by the leadership and fight for equality by Enjolras, the amazing student leader (Aaron Tweit):

Enjolras

The characters bounce off each other as much on set as off.  The issues that connect the characters are the same issues that connect the actors and audience.  The character who you could say comes off worst is Eponine, played with great understanding by Samantha Barks.

Eponine

Her loyalty to Marius is known only to her and she is a catalyst to Valjean becoming aware of Cosette’s love for Marius.  I’ve mentioned Valjean but not the actor who plays him – Hugh Jackman is astounding and allows the audience to see his soul.

Valjean

The gift of singing in the film also allows us to see and hear everything and more about the characters.  It is as much about ‘how’ they say something (in song) as ‘what’ they say.  What they say is so profound that the genre of song allows the audience to absorb and think about what they say much better than if it was simply said.  Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine (above in the pink dress in the picture) would not be as real if it was said.  Her song allows her to go the extra mile.  Tom Hooper has done a magnificent job in directing this film.

One of the most moving moments for fans of Les Miserables like me who’ve known the musical since the beginning, is seeing Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne.  Wilkinson was the original Valjean when the stage musical opened at the Barbican, London, and seeing him return as the Bishop – the character who gives Valjean his life back, is layered with meaning.  From one Valjean to another.  From one generation to another has Victor Hugo’s story lived.  And, if viewers think Wilkinson as the Bishop is meaningful, wait until you get to the end of the film and the weight of the story’s meaning, and the actors who’ve made it live for us, is a revelation.

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Valjean (Jackman) sits with the Bishop (Wilkinson) and the famous candlesticks

Size isn’t everything

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I’ve come across another two small charities which I believe need a message of support.  I am struck by the much needed work they are doing – what they are doing also exposes how nasty humans can be to living beings they see as ‘lower’ or somehow less worthy of care and respectful treatment.

The charities are the Greek Cat Welfare Society www.greekcatwelfare.moonfruit.com and Animal SOS Sri Lanka www.animalsos-sl.com .  Both charities are registered in the UK, run by volunteers.  They are desperately trying to rescue the cats and dogs thrown on to the streets in Greece and Sri Lanka.  Not only are the animals neglected, they are abused – having been neglected.  It is shocking.

Animal SOS

These small charities are doing the biggest work – saving life where they can.  In the words of William Wordsworth

‘the best portion of a good man’s life – his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.’

Greek Cat Welfare

What we can do….support the charities, be aware that when we travel – if we see something that does not sit comfortably with us, i.e. an act of cruelty, speak out (in countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia).  If we see a working animal abused – such as a donkey or a horse, report it to the many UK charities that are working to stop animals being used as tourist buses (charities include SPANA, The Brooke Animal Hospital).

And above all – don’t pay to ride on a donkey or a horse or camel or any animal.  It is likely to have been beaten into doing it!

Actions speak louder than words and tourists have a lot of power to change primitive and cruel behaviour.

Message of Thanks

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I wanted to say a big thank you to all the bloggers who’ve looked at my blog during its first year.  I’m grateful for you stopping by and hope you’ve got something out of it.  Thank you for your messages of support and interest.  Like all of you, there is something liberating about speaking into the midst of humanity even if like Amy Adams in the film ‘Julia and Julia’, I don’t always know who I am speaking to.

So, here are 3 paintings on the theme of hope for 2013.  The first is a favourite of mine – ‘Hope’ by G F Watts:

Hope by G F Watts

The second is totally appropriate for our time – ‘Hands of Hope’ by Anthony Hodge:

Hands of Hope by Anthony Hodge

The third shows hope through the eyes of nature – ‘Petals of Hope’ by Thomas Kinkade:

Petals of Hope by Thomas Kinkade

All three I think are beautiful.  I also have a quote which I found in the newsletter of a small charity doing wonderful work – Hands Around the World – www.hatw.org.uk

If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve obviously never been in bed with a mosquito.

Lots of small acts make a big difference.  One person can’t change the world but one person can change the world for one person, or one animal.