“Wrenching emotion and empathy is not what always emits from this bombastic mess. It has even been reported that, for many scenes, Mr. Hooper would pretentiously have the crew throw together garbage to enhance the sets disguised as extras and the actors never knew where the cameras were, if they were being shot. Just b/c one wins an Oscar, that does not automatically give one permission to act like a rock star director.”
Les Miserables, Movie Review
How can I sum up Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables in a nutshell? Remember the climactic scene in The King’s Speech when Colin Firth gives the titular speech? How the camera was so close-up on him and using a fish-eye lens and there were no cutaways in real time that you started to feel total vertigo even though it was just an actor reading lines in a booth? Now, imagine that scene blown up to a two and half hour adaptation of one of the most famous musical shows on Broadway. Well, that’s it. When Mr. Hooper unexpectedly (and probably undeservedly) won the Oscar for Best Director for his last film, many detractors of The King’s Speech claimed that he coaxed brilliant performances out of his actors while giving the visual milieu a bland, anonymous interpretation. Well, that’s certainly not the case here as Les Misérables might just be one of the most maudlin, punishing, supposedly “feel-good” film musicals I’ve ever seen. At least you cannot accuse him of risk aversion.
I think, at this time, it is appropriate for me to mention that I have never seen any stage production of the musical, read Victor Hugo’s classic book, or even seen the 1998 film version with Liam Neeson. I have heard that the Raymond Bernard’s 1934 film version is quite good, so I will check it out soon. Before I saw Mr. Hooper’s version, I couldn’t tell a Fantine from an Éponine. The only exposure I had to the story was from an old episode of Modern Family where Rico Rodriguez’s Manny tells, the basic concept of Jean Viljean’s sad story to Sophia Vargara’s Gloria and her only response is, “19 years in jail for stealing bread?! How good is this bread?” Unfortunately, that question is never answered in this film.
The film’s near-failure isn’t due to the performances, though. If there is one thing Mr. Hooper does its the casting. He gets Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe to finally sing on screen as Jean Valjean and Javert, respectively. Everyone who has seen Anne Hathway co-hosting the Oscars or Amanda Seyfried in Momma Mia already knew they were born to play Fantine and Cosette (though Miss Seyfield sings her songs in a lower octave than the soprano level expected for the role). Miss Hathaway’s mother even originated the Fantine role on Broadway, so her dazzling, Liza Minelli-esque performance here feels more expected than a revelation. Mr. Crowe cannot sing the high notes the other actors can, but his stage experience doing the Australian Rocky Horror Show and other musicals serve him well as he acquaints his baritone voice well, even while looking like Captain Crunch in his police uniform. Mr. Jackman has the right singing voice for the role (though he unwisely vocally growls too much to express the character’s agony), but his stage background always comes back to haunt him on film as he seems to always over-emotes no matter the given situation.
The Sweeney Todd reunion of Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier offer brilliant comic relief, but only reminded me how much I liked the suddenly underrated Tim Burton adaptation better than this one. Wondering if these stars can actually sing is a little beside the point if the characters and storytelling are not as compelling.
The real acting surprises for me were Eddie Redmayne as Marius and British talent show winner Samantha Barks in her film debut as Éponine. Miss Barks beat out many high-profile singers for this role and you can see why Mr. Hooper chose her. As a film actor, she needs more experience, but has the voice, looks, and presence to lead a dozen film musicals later on. It was also nice to see the original Broadway Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, singing in a small but pivotal role as a Bishop.
Where the film goes wrong are the stylistic choices made by Mr. Hooper. Much has been written that he was snubbed by the usually musical-crazy Hollywood Foreign Press by not getting a Best Director nomination for the Golden Globes. I’d say they got it right on the money. In a strong year with daring, impressive work by veterans Steven Spielberg, Michael Haneke, Kathryn Bigelow, Ang Lee, David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and others, Mr. Hooper’s unconventional choices feel more like artistic blunders than grittiness. True, 98% of the dialogue is sung opera-style with no intermission or breathing room for either the actors or audience, but one person’s cacophony is another’s idea of heaven. Of course, it doesn’t help that the script downplays the politics of the Paris Uprising so that almost every plot point involving Valjean seemingly comes out of nowhere (he even sings about a forgiving Christian God whilst stealing candles from the Bishop that saved him) and is almost impossible to follow coherently (but at least the music flows nicely). They don’t even bother to sing about what certain important characters die from. A history lesson, this is not.
The film is mostly shot handheld with fish eye lenses and in uninterrupted close-ups and so choppily edited together, you would think the intention is either to make the audience yearn for the glory days of Dogma 95 or be, well, miserable. Whenever the camera would transition into a sweeping CGI panoramic wide shot (which was too often), I didn’t want it to come back down. Wrenching emotion and empathy is not what always emits from this bombastic mess. It has even been reported that, for many scenes, Mr. Hooper would pretentiously have the crew throw together garbage to enhance the sets disguised as extras and the actors never knew where the cameras were, if they were being shot. Just b/c one wins an Oscar, that does not automatically give one permission to act like a rock star director.
Another thing Mr. Hooper gets right, besides the makeshift art direction and costumes, is that the actors were required to sing live on-camera instead of doing it in ADR. This enhances the cast’s performances tenfold. So while Mr. Hooper seems to believe that having his actors perform to the backseats even when the camera is pushed into their face, as if singing into the audience’s ears, the actors are able to compensate by straining their throats when the sing to achieve otherwise impossible subtle facial and bodily expressions. Not since Bill Condon instructed Jennifer Hudson to literally scream into Jamie Foxx’s ear in Dreamgirls has a musical been so ridiculously helmed.
To be fair, Les Misérables was incredibly entertaining, overwhelming, emotional, and engrossing….in separate places. The opening and closing segments were easily the strongest aspects of the film. The middle section never lost my interest but I did feel like I was being strung through a damp valley in between exploring marvelous cliffs. The main theme of this musical might be that forgiveness (particularly of the Christian variety) is all that matters in this difficult life, but I cannot forgive shockingly unimaginative and arrogant directorial choices at once so hideous and opulent that they destroy any potential for a sense of redemption and emotional sweep. This film’s real goal is not the triumph of heart and soul over adversity, but of the sparkly Academy-friendly statue kind Chicago managed to get away with a decade ago against superior competition. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself this time around.
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