Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is a film that you can’t help but admire. It’s boundlessly ambitious, attempting to not only be the finest adaptation of the 32 year old musical but also to replicate the feeling of attending a live show by recording the players live on set. It has a fine cast made up of film stars and stage veterans and a bold visual style designed to evoke the squalid reality of 19th century France while not sacrificing the bombastic emotional élan of a Broadway show. Sadly the film’s reach exceeds its grasp and instead of being a heartrending epic, it’s a laborious slog that never manages to connect emotionally.
The film begins promisingly, the camera arising from the sea to reveal an extremely haggard Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and dozens of other prisoners pulling a massive ship into port while Javert (Russell Crowe) looks on dispassionately. The scene is suffused in rich Romantic color and establishes the struggle between the two men as an appropriately titanic one. And then the singing starts and the whole thing falls apart. Jackman’s booming tenor sounds great and is totally fitting for his role, but Crowe sounds like he was directed to poorly imitate Shane MacGowan. His voice is blunt and graceless and the only way Crowe could disrupt the mise en scène more is if he pulled an iPhone from his jacket pocket. The sections of film that don’t feature Javert work much better than those that do, which is a major problem since he’s the film’s primary antagonist. That’s not to say that everything about the rest of the film is entirely successful.
Jackman and the film’s excellent hair and makeup people clearly put a lot of work into making him look emaciated, robust, and near death but Jackman’s performance doesn’t match the quality of his appearance. Jackman simply doesn’t reach the levels of despair and yearning that his character demands and since he is our protagonist, his lack of believability creates a hole in the film that can’t be paved over with costuming and VFX, no matter how exquisite. Though Tom Hooper directed Colin Firth to give his best performance in 2010’s “The King’s Speech,” he was unable to break through Jackman’s artificiality.
Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen chose to shoot most of the film at low angles with handheld cameras; his actors almost always in extreme close up. In theory, this aesthetic choice is meant to draw the viewer into the frame in a visceral way but in execution creates a vertiginous feeling that makes the film’s immaculately designed sets look as artificial as Disneyland. The constantly moving, unappetizingly close camerawork has the same effect on most of the performances. A foot down and away from an actor’s face is not a perspective that lends itself to the grandeur and scope of the film’s themes. The cinematography is one of many elements of “Les Misérables” that is ambitious but unsuccessful.
The film’s marketing touted its live on set recording as an inventive (though it wasn’t) method to align musical and physical performance as opposed to most musicals where a soundtrack is used. Most of the vocals in the film are excellent, with Anne Hathaway’s stirring rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” as the film’s most affecting moment and Samantha Bark’s work in “On My Own” as a close second, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Because the singing was recorded on set many of the actors chose to muddle the cleanness of their performances with the emotional reality of the scene, so songs are howled, whispered, and bellowed instead of sung with the power they deserve. In trying to emotionally ground his film Hooper has robbed it of much of its power.
So what is a grand old musical when stripped of its grace, verisimilitude and power? It is an almost three hour long endurance trial with a few bright spots but far too many sour notes. Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables” is film that is watched as a series of YouTube clips that rightly exclude all of Russell Crowe’s appearances. It works in brief chucks, like the very amusing introduction of the Thénardiers or Javert’s silent walk through the remains of the June Rebellion but as a sustained piece of work, it was the most arduous cinematic experiences I’ve had in years.
“Les Misérables” is available on streaming video and Blu-ray through Amazon.
Mario McKellop has written about film on Examiner for the last three years and can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org