Les Miserables is widely considered one of the most depressing musicals of all time. It may have a competitor in The Last Five Years. Okay okay, so there’s no one forced into prostitution or a decades-old blood feud. But the adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown (which is in turn based on his real marriage breakdown) is mighty depressing.
The Last Five Years is essentially the tale of two attractive white people: Jamie (Jeremy Jordan) and Cathy (Anna Kendrick). Both are creative types: he a writer and she an actress. They meet, shag, flames ignite and they quickly fall in love. Yet as their courtship turns serious and the pair get hitched, problems start to pop up as Jamie’s career as a novelist takes off while Cathy’s does not. Tension builds between the pair, blame is thrown, romance is rekindled only to be crushed again by looming infidelities and a lack of communication until they eventually split for good.
That’s not a spoiler, by the way, so pipe down you in the back. From the trailer it’s easy to grasp that although this is a conventional love story it’s unconventionally told. The first shot is Cathy dressed in black, looking over a letter and an abandoned wedding ring while singing about the fact that Jamie is gone for good, while she’s “still hurting”. It’s one of the standout tracks of the piece and a raw, emotional turn from Kendrick. The next scene we’re thrown back – jarringly, at first – to a musical number at the beginning of their relationship. There is barely a spoken line of dialogue in the film, almost everything is sung, and the audience is shown the full scope of Jamie and Cathy’s relationship simultaneously in the past and in the present. One song will have them bickering in the final days, while the very next one shows them happily in love as they move into their first apartment together. This is not only an original tool in the realm of musicals – cinematic or stage – but it’s an especially brutal one when used in the hands of a competent filmmaker as it illustrates love in its true, authentic, beauty and also in it’s darkest, most destructive moments.
Said competent filmmaker is Richard LaGravenese who writes, produces and directs The Last Five Years. The marketing pitch is ‘from the man behind P.S. I Love You and Beautiful Creatures’ but it’s too easy to write him off as just a romantic filmmaker. He’s also the Academy Award winning man behind The Fisher King, A Little Princess (OMG!!!!), The Horse Whisperer, Water For Elephants, Behind The Candelabra and Unbroken. Yeah, he very much knows what he is doing. It shows with the inventive camera work, the choreographed scenes and the knowledge of when to focus on the sweeping moments and when to focus on the smaller, more intimate ones.
The problems with the film are only tiny, yet they do add up. Their relationship starts out sweet and affectionately: so much so that you really root for these two characters who fall quickly and deeply in love. That’s what makes the breakdown of the relationship so difficult, because essentially it comes down to the narcissism and egos of the two leads. Instead of being excited and supportive of Jamie’s career, Cathy becomes resentful of his success. Why? Because she isn’t getting any of her own. It’s not actually Jamie that’s the problem – he treats her with gifts and romance and financially supports her through auditions – it’s Cathy’s inability to ‘measure up’ as she sees it. As for Jamie, his success is also the downfall the relationship on his side as he begins to view Cathy as beneath him: she can’t keep up with his glamorous lifestyle and the professional women he encounters everyday. When he becomes adulterous, one woman isn’t enough – it’s almost an insult to his ego to just sleep with one in their marital bed – and he lashes out at his partner as he struggles with his own guilt. It’s painful to watch the two of them tear each other apart with stereotypical white people problems. Yet, in many ways, that’s what makes it work. After the final tears are shed and the pieces are started to put back together at the end of a relationship you start to look back at what was the final nail in the coffin. For Cathy and Jamie, like so many of us, it’s not one thing: it’s one hundred little things piled up over the years until the pair can’t remember why they fell in love in the first place.
Strictly for hardcore fans of musicals only, The Last Five Years ain’t The Notebook: it’s realistic and heartbreaking look at love gone wrong.
Maria Lewis - follow Maria on Twitter here: @moviemazz or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.