As a great fan of the musical as an art form (both in the theatrical and cinematic context), I am comfortable saying that Les Misérables is one of the great works created for the stage. Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, the musical is a highly celebrated classic in its own right; a highly emotional, melodramatic epic. The music by Claude-Michel Schönberg (with lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel and adapted into English by Herbert Kretzmer) has been sung and memorized by actors and fans alike since the show’s inception in 1985. A film adaptation of the musical has been a long time coming, and is met with high expectations and a great deal of hype, particularly after director Tom Hooper’s recent Oscar win for directing The King’s Speech, a critically loved (yet frequently internet hated) and lovely little British period drama. The pre-release narrative is clean and true: the terrific cast, the director’s pedigree, the much publicized use of live-on-set singing, the notion that “finally!” this film is being made. For all intents and purposes, this adaptation of Les Misérables should be a home run. Yet instead we are met with a film that is almost a catastrophe. The film is an overly and arbitrarily stylized conception of a classic piece of work that obscures all artistic merit in favor of misguided and utterly maddening ugliness.
When I first heard of the live-on-set singing approach to this film (no ADR or studio dubbing, as is typical of a musical film, was utilized) it excited me because it pointed to the approach that Tom Hooper was taking. It is clear from seeing the film that I was right in assuming the intent: this film is meant to be an intimate and raw take on the musical that highlights the emotions and the melodrama. By utilizing this technique, Hooper affords his actors the opportunity to truly act. This cast is, after all, made up of actors first (singers second). For the most part the cast Hooper has assembled can not sing this score as well as the many actors who have performed it on the stage, but that is not important in a cinematic approach. They are competent (some, like Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, are excellent, and give the film’s most rounded performances) vocalists but phenomenal actors. Russell Crowe’s growling vocals are oddly suitable for Javert; he barely sings, but instead speaks on pitch. It is less embarrassing than it sounds, and he brings gravitas to the film that are sorely missed elsewhere. Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway reach into the depths of their characters and if they aren’t perfectly on pitch with each note or the vibrato falters it doesn’t matter because they are connected to the humanity and truths of these moments. Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” in particular is not necessarily vocally stunning but it is incredibly powerful, hitting right to the heart. Yet as we see this moment only in extreme close-up, the camera shakily focusing only on Fantine’s (Hathaway) face, the emotion begins to crumble. We lose the illusion through the loss of context.
Rarely have I seen a director’s intent so poorly executed. I hold no ill will towards Hooper (as I mentioned above, I quite like The King’s Speech and his HBO miniseries John Adams is excellent), but he goes to great lengths in Les Misérables to essentially ruin the entire film. Alongside cinematographer Danny Cohen, Hooper has crafted a film that is visually impenetrable. The film is riddled with arbitrary and useless dutch angles, swooping and shaking movement, and a plethora of intense close ups of heads and faces. Les Misérables is an epic tale, spanning many years and many locations. This film, though, is a claustrophobic mess. There is no tangible grasp on the reality or cohesion of its world. The lighting and set design is ugly (not dirty and filthy like the time period suggests, but genuinely ugly). The film is so poorly stylized that as an audience member I was left at arm’s length, unable to make a connection, unable to respond to the material. It is dizzying, maddening, disgusting. The moments of great performance that Hugh or Anne or Eddie Redmayne hit are ostensibly ruined. Tom Hooper (and Danny Cohen) does his actors and the material a great disservice.
We are left, then, with a film of minimal and superficial pleasures. The score remains beautiful, and certain songs are beautifully sung. Close your eyes and the orchestrations are lovely. The inclusion of stage vetaran Colm Wilkinsin is a wonderful nod to fans. But the tone of the film is all wrong. It is not so much that it is overwrought, but rather that it almost seems like a joke. The visual obscurity goes a long way towards this. There is no weight or legitimacy. It is a floating, prancing, airy film that feels like actors playing dress up, not a legitimate epic or period piece. The Thenardiers are poorly integrated and obnoxiously performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who both clearly thought they were in a silly farce as opposed to the intimate epic this wishes to be. Their antics speak to the film’s ultimate issue: Tom Hooper’s lack of control. With this cast and this approach, the film should have been a big success. Instead we are left with a weightless mess of frustrating nonsense.
Last edited by SpikeDurden; 12-20-2012 at 10:51 AM..