Les Misérables | Tom Hooper | 2012 | ★½
Living in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas, good theater, especially musical theater is hard to come by. So, as someone who wants to appreciate the arts, when it comes to theater, all one has to go on is the stories one hears from those who have visited theater meccas and had amazing experiences. One of those productions that I would hear about the most is the musical production of Les Misérables, the basis for Tom Hooper’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. I once had a French teacher who said she saw the original French production of the play, saw it again during its initial Broadway run, and has seen it a few more times since then. Often she would talk about how every time she watched it she had a fantastic experience, how the production was mind blowing, and how the music got right to her soul. Perhaps her testimonials elevated my hopes too much, but I was hoping that Hooper’s cinematic adaptation would do something like this to me. It was obvious that the experience would be completely different, but I still believed that a film could have a similar effect. Well, after sitting through Hooper’s film, I still believe that a great cinematic experience could be carved out from the source material, but thanks to the obnoxious direction, it’s not this film.
Now, before you think that I’m simply basing my opinion on Tom Hooper’s Oscar win from a couple of years ago, you’d be wrong. Despite the fact that I do think he did not deserve to win, I still find his work on The King’s Speech admirable. Besides, if The Social Network and David Fincher had won, wouldn’t I still have to hate them as well considering that Toy Story 3 was my favorite film of the year? No, my mind doesn’t usually work like that. My resentment of Hooper’s work here comes from the fact that he was the wrong person for the material, and it showed.
Les Misérables, as written by Victor Hugo, is an epic story of redemption, and the meaning of duty that takes place in France in the span of many years leading to the beginning of the French revolution. Many of the various film versions throughout the years, even when they fail, have managed to get this feeling across, and by all accounts, the stage musical as well. The movie musical doesn’t despite all of the elements being there. The reason for this is the director’s insistence of having 90 percent of the shots in the film being off-center, close-up shots of the actors faces. It works towards the beginning, particularly with Jean Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) first solo number in the church, but right after that, the style becomes tedious and obtrusive, and it affected any emotional resonance the scenes may have had. For example, there’s Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) big number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” I had heard various renditions throughout the years; the most famous being Susan Boyle’s rendition, and it is a great song. In the film, Hathaway pours her heart and soul into her live performance, and yet, I was unmoved. This is far from Hathaway’s fault, as the next day I went and listened the audio version of song and tears were streaming down my face, but because of Hooper’s mis-en-scene. I was just too damn distracted by his ugly framing to be able to be swept away by what is going on the screen. In the end, despite Hathaway’s best efforts, as present on the film, the song carries less pathos than Boyle’s performance. This carries on for the rest of the film on every music number, rendering possibly heart-wrenching numbers like “On My Own” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” silly.
Not only this, but it seemed that he didn’t know how to handle the pacing and the tonal shifts. The whole film felt like a rushed, greatest hits montage, and yet, when a music number came along, it screeched to a halt, and some felt like they dragged on and on. Perhaps things wouldn’t have been as bad if the dialogue between the songs had been spoken? I think that would have given the characters some room to breathe and for development. As for the tone, the shifts that occurred whenever the Thénadiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen) showed up, felt like they came out of nowhere and there were very jarring. It would have been okay if it had only happened the first time, but it happens every damn time, and I dreaded their next appearances. Also, the scenes towards the beginning, with Fantine’s downwards spiral, rathern than playing out like something horrific, they played out as if some amateur was pretending to be Terry Gilliam making a horror film.
I must also talk about how the close-ups affected my appreciation of the production design and the costumes. I’m sure that the people responsible for both of these aspects did the best jobs they could do, but I couldn’t appreciate them because I could not see much of them due to the close ups and dutch angles. I could see, for example, that grown-up Cosette (Amande Seyfried) wore some beautiful costumes, but I could only see a couple of inches below her neck every time she was on screen. And if I was the production designer I would be pissed that of all my beautiful work, the director and the director of photography only decided to showcase the battered wall and the wallpaper (seriously, what’s with Hooper’s obsession with battered walls?).
And this brings me to what could be the film’s greatest failure: the much touted live singing. It works for certain people, mainly Hathaway, Samathan Barks (as Eponine), Eddie Redmayne (as Marius), and Aaron Tveit (as Enjolras). However, it actually affected the two leads. Hugh Jackman has experience in musical theater, but something went wrong, and his voice was all over the place. Apart from “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” none of his numbers are particularly good, especially the silly and unnecessary “Suddenly,” which was probably only written to get the show’s original writers some Oscar love. Russell Crowe, meanwhile, may not have the greatest voice, but his tone and very structured way of singing fit the character. Even so, he (and Jackman) could have used some of the help that a studio recording could have given them.
With that out of the way, I really must praise the work of the actors. Crowe really makes the most out of his limited vocal abilities, but makes it up by giving character to Javert. Hathaway, Barks, Redmayne, and Tveit have incredible voices, but it’s a shame their director didn’t know how to make their work shine. I must even praice Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen, because they did fine jobs despite the poor handling of their appearances.
Despite a few bright moments, I have no choice but to call Les Misérables a failure. Tom Hooper took a legendary musical based on an epic novel and the best he could come up with is what would be considered an above-average TV film.