At a mid-morning showing of Les Misérables, I’m trying to work out just what it is that has been making people so upset. Not upset in a bad way, necessarily. Since being released last Friday, the film has broken box-office records, making £8.1m in the UK in its opening weekend – compared with Mamma Mia’s previous record, for a musical, of £6.62m. But along with reports of spontaneous applause, there have also been tales of sobbing and wailing, of audiences brought low, then tipped right into despair. A video has been circulating of a Long Island family, showing the middle-aged parents crying uncontrollably on the way home from the film. “I hear the first note, I start to cry,” says the father, George, before noting he has been to family funerals where he has cried less.
So is this the film world’s biggest ever weepie? As its title suggests, it doesn’t run scared of abject sadness, and along with countless deaths there is grinding poverty, child exploitation and raw sewage. But the only moment that really brought me to tears was Anne Hathaway as Fantine, a young woman broken by circumstance, who breaks into the classic song I Dreamed a Dream, and wrings it for every drop of sadness. Hathaway has just won a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for the performance, and, like everyone in the film, she sings live, the first time this has been possible to this extent in a film musical, thanks to technological advances. It’s an approach, some suggest, that adds to the awful emotional wrench of it all.
Not that there is audible sobbing at my screening. There are only a handful of us. But as we emerge from the dark, I speak to actor Lucy White, who is seeing the film for the second time. She’s teary, rather than broken, but says the first time she “pretty much cried from beginning to end. I was a mess. I just had loads of tissues around my feet.” Her dad, Jim, emerges a few seconds later, and when I ask whether he cried, he gestures silently to his throat, and says he was gulping to hold back the tears. Paul Lyons, an 80-year-old, says they were “determined to wrench every tear out of anybody who was prepared to shed them”, but while he thought it was moving, he is made of sterner stuff. He remained dry-eyed.
In the lobby, the cinema staff say that although one of their managers has been advising viewers to take tissues in to Les Misérables, it doesn’t seem to be the most tear-jerking film of the season. Far from it. For that garland, there are nods to everything from Life of Pi, to Amour, to The Impossible. All have been provoking huge sobs, and drawing enthusiastic audiences. Suggesting that not just Les Misérables, but misery itself, is film’s true flavour of the month.
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