Written by William Nicholson
Directed by Tom Hooper
Verisimilitude can be a terrible trap. Film is an inherently contrived medium, one nevertheless capable of insinuating itself into realms real, imaginary and psychic through cunning, trickery, and time-honored craft. But, for better and (usually) worse, the existence of the medium’s hidden powers doesn’t stop some contemporary filmmakers from tweaking established conventions in the hope of creating a more “realistic” experience.
Take Britain’s Tom Hooper, for instance. Given any chance, he’ll extol the virtues of his new filmic adaptation of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. He’ll doubtlessly mention that it features live, in-camera vocal performances, forgoing the standard film-musical practice of utilizing studio-honed vocal performances that are then synced to the actors’ filmed performances. (Or, heaven forbid, hiring professional singers to handle that aspect.) His directorial style, which makes use of copious Steadicam and extreme closeup and Dutch angles, seeks to emphasize the presentness of said performances. This is to be a bold new vision of the movie musical. (Nevermind that the notion of the film’s purported “realness” doesn’t exactly mesh well with its status as an English-language musical set in France with a mostly-British cast.)
The trouble with his Les Misérables is that neither Hooper nor (most of) his cast is remotely up to the much-trickier-than-foreseen task; they’ve skipped straight to attempting to reinvent the wheel without any indication that they actually understood just how the damn thing actually worked in the first place.
The film follows the structure of the stage musical nearly to the letter, save for abridgements. It opens with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a long-suffering prisoner in 1815 France, working the last days of his 19-year sentence for petty theft on a chain gang. Upon his conditional release, he is warned by stern Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) that he’ll be keeping a watchful eye. Nevertheless, driven by desperation, Valjean attempts to rob a church, only to be forgiven through a priest’s (Colm Wilkinson, former stage Valjean) mercy, ultimately becoming mayor of a small town, as well as the owner of a local factory. One of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), resorts to prostitution as a means to support her unfortunate offspring, Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried). Before long, Valjean decides to involve himself in both Fantine and Cosette’s lives, setting in motion events that come to a head years later, during the June Rebellion of 1832.
Les Misérables, fhe stage musical, is nothing if not outsized, and therefore seemingly an ideal candidate for a filmic treatment. In Valjean and Javert, it possesses one of the great hero/villain pairings, evoking duelling notions of nobility, sacrifice, mercy, honor, and duty. Its three-hours-and-change original running time spans nearly two decades of story time. Its sung-through score rarely, if ever, misses a chance to play up every emotional beat possible. Les Misérables, the movie, chickens out in the face of all that bigness, opting instead for an approach that, with rare exceptions, is about as epic as your average college production – only with less distinguished performances.
The film’s problems are twofold: Hooper’s vexing visual approach and wrongheaded decision to employ live singing are compounded by the fact that his mostly-famous cast simply isn’t equipped for this. Jackman doesn’t have the gravitas for Valjean, despite his Broadway credentials, but Crowe is unforgivably awful, surely the least menacing Javert ever, not to mention a very weak singer, incapable of infusing his vocal performance with any kind of vitality or emotion. The supporting players don’t fare much better. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the Thenardiers as purely comic, lacking any of the reqisite cutthroat menace; Eddie Redmayne looks the part of Marius, Cosette’s admittedly bland love interest, but has a distractingly Kermit-like singing voice; even Samantha Barks, a recent stage Eponine reprising the role here, seems uncomfortable with the change of venue. (Her rendition of “On My Own” is tentative and halting where it should be devastating.) In fact, the live singing seems to weaken nearly every player’s acting, meaning the performances freqently fail to convey the many anguished – and occasionally joyous – emotional beats necessary to make the whole affair click. And yet, despite the lackluster efforts on hand, Hooper lovingly frames nearly every player in closeup as often as possible, frequently robbing the film of any sense of physical scope.
Two cast members actually acquit themselves admirably. Hathaway seems to be the only cast member comfortable with Hooper’s grand experiment, throwing herself into the role of Fantine with selfless gusto. Her work here is proof that the performers needn’t be pro-level singers, just that they know how best to approach the chosen medium. (It helps that her principal number, “I Dreamed a Dream,” gets the simplest, most effective staging of the entire film.) Seyfried passes muster, too, though that’s at least partly attributable to the fact that Cosette is by some measure the least interesting principal character, not to mention the one with the fewest memorable numbers.
The twin problems of the timid and unconvincing performances and the uninspiring staging, not to mention the too-hasty pacing, which helps to rob the story of its emotional heft, doom an already extremely hairy endeavor. It’s possible that with a more able cast and a director less taken with a misbegotten sense of “innovation,” a filmed version of the Les Misérables musical might have done the music, story and characters justice. But Hooper’s film is a far cry from good enough.