Bringing Down the House: Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as comic ‘Masters’ in ‘Les Mis’

Carter and Cohen as Masters of the House

Carter and Cohen as Masters of the House

At first glance, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are an odd choice to play the wily inn-keeping couple Madame and Monsieur Thenardier. Cohen worked his way up through comic television and controversial character sketches while Carter starred in a series of entertainingly eccentric film roles. Neither came up through the West End or Broadway and neither began their career with the intention of singing. Despite Carter’s reservations about her singing and the fact that Cohen lost his voice for an entire week (Cohen gained a lot of respect for Hugh Jackman’s abilities during that time), Carter and Cohen’s turn as the scheming swindlers we all love to hate is a comic match made in heaven. Or, somewhere. But how did these two unlikely actors come to Les Miserables in the first place?

Carter as Madame Thenardier

Carter as Madame Thenardier

They are both from London, both known for playing odd roles and both have three-part names but there the similarities end. Carter has wanted to be an actress since she was a teenager and began starring in films and commercials with no formal training. Her first breakout role was Lucy Honeychurch in A Room with a View, which both cemented her reputation and made her type-cast for a time as the corseted, eccentric period-Englishwoman. She has since become known for her troubled femme fatale role in Fight Club, Bellatrix Lastrange in the Harry Potter franchise, the Queen Mother in The King’s Speech and her frequent collaborations with her boyfriend, director Tim Burton. Her first foray into film musicals was Burton’s Sweeney Todd as Mrs. Lovett, Johnny Depp’s meat-pie-making paramour. Coincidentally, Cohen played and sang the role of Signor Adolfo Pirelli, Depp’s barbering competition. Not a singer by profession, Carter preferred the studio style of Sweeney Todd to the live-singing technique famously used in Les Miserables. While Carter has expressed disappointment in her singing the delivery is real above all else and it lends a genuine earthiness to the abusing and abused Madame Thenardier. After wrapping filming for Les Miserables, Carter stated that she plans to take a break from acting to concentrate on family life with Burton and their two children. She even hinted at possibly tying the knot with her director boyfriend, so stay tuned if that happens.

Cohen as Monsieur Thenardier

Cohen as Monsieur Thenardier

Cohen, who is also known for playing strange roles, is actually better known for creating and playing the controversial characters Ali G, Borat, Bruno and Admiral General Aladeen. Also a native Londoner, Cohen graduated from the esteemed Cambridge University and worked as a fashion model until he transferred to hosting television. His big break came with an early version of Borat, the offensively clueless citizen of Kazakhstan (who stars in the satiric film Borat). Ali G (a West London junglist) went on to star in Da Ali G Show, followed by the movie Ali G Indahouse. Eventually Bruno (a 19 year old flamboyantly gay fashion host) and Admiral General Aladeen (a sendup of Muammar Gaddafi) made their own way to the big screen in Bruno and The Dictator, respectively. Cohen’s characters interview unsuspecting celebrities and politicians and his subject’s too-true remarks form the hysterical basis for his “gotcha” satire. His renegade candid-camera approach has embroiled him in plenty of controversy with big names, leading at times to Cohen jumping out of windows and fleeing arrest. Thankfully, there was no such pressure on the set of Les Miserables. Since his series of blockbuster movies Cohen has become a producing powerhouse in his own right and reportedly earns more than most of Hollywood. Now known for his more conventional roles in Talladega Nights and the Madagascar films, he had to turn down Django Unchained to film Les Miserables. Up next, Cohen will be playing Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the rock band Queen, in Mercury.

The weird chemistry of the Thenardiers dovetails perfectly with the rest of the film. For all of their differences, Carter and Cohen seem made for each other. The singing, scrapping “Masters of the House” is an audience favorite and these two deliver it with relish. As recurring characters throughout the film they provide a little comic relief and a lot of problems for the protagonists. By the end they are still riding low as parasites on high society but their need to steal everything (including their scenes) is indomitable. Listen for their wonderful voice-work on the new soundtrack and be sure to enjoy every bit of their comic genius throughout the movie. Don’t stay at their pub for any reason, but be sure to drop in, enjoy the fun and raise a glass to the masters of the house.

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