I saw LES MISERABLES, Tom Hooper’s much-anticipated follow-up to his Oscar-winning, THE KING’S SPEECH, a couple of weeks ago, but I haven’t been able to write a review of it until now. Part of it had to do with not knowing how to coalesce my many thoughts about the film, and another part couldn’t bear to write about what a deplorable mess we have here. Have a seat, because this is gonna take some time.
When the lights went down and the movie started, I had that feeling of excitement I get when watching a Broadway show. I knew the source material. I saw the enigmatic posters. I was about to see flags waving, people marching, and one boldly exciting moment after another. It would be an epic saga of an ex-con’s redemption as he flees across the decades from his jailor. I predicted great things. Little Cosette would take out her broom and just sweep those Oscars. And then….OMG! WTF happened?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love musicals. I’ve seen LES MIZ many times, on two different continents over the years, in London, New York and Los Angeles. I have always been captivated by its haunting, poetic songs and its harrowing story set in a brutal time in French history. Hell, I even wrote a musical (LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR), so I know what a huge undertaking is involved. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about what works and what doesn’t in this fragile, often misunderstood, yet hugely rewarding art form. One of the things I learned the most is to embrace musicals that weren’t afraid to be musicals. You know the kind, where characters will talk for a while and then, all of a sudden, break out in song and dance…WEST SIDE STORY, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. When CABARET came along, and as great as it was, I feared that somehow Bob Fosse sensed that the public would only believe a musical when its characters were singing on a stage. Same went for CHICAGO, another great musical despite embracing this same trend. As much as I loved them, I’ve always loved the magic this genre generates. Forget the musicals they forgot to choreograph (I’m talking to you MAMMA MIA!). Forget the musicals that when adapted turned that lovely recitative into painfully labored dialogue (Do you hear me RENT?). It’s ok to not present reality. People are singing and dancing! It’s a musical. Go with it! They’re not documentaries!
Great musicals use songs to reveal what a character can’t usually express otherwise. Onstage, I felt LES MIZ had all of those qualities. It’s a swirling, bombastic, mesmerizing, and often emotionally overpowering experience. Even the stage twirled at times. Each time I saw it performed, I would allow myself to get swept away by its operatic grandeur. Those songs, and as a sung-through musical, there are many, were so well-suited for belting to the back row of the theatre, and herein lies one of the problems with this film adaptation. Hooper clearly thought about how to present this movie. Considering the emotional breadth of the piece, he had his actors sing live on set with a piano accompaniment playing in their earpieces. His intent was good. He didn’t want that fake, cheesy effect of lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks. Unfortunately, his decision has allowed most of the actors to over-indulge their performances, taking lengthy pauses to capture a feeling. What it does is stop the beautiful flow of the music. Additionally, you can tell that the actors are singing to a lone piano and that the huge instrumentations were filled in during post-production. Their styles are so intimate at times, that you never feel the push-pull one gets when an actor is called upon to “volley” with an orchestra. Frankly, I would have preferred lip-syncing here. It would have forced the actors to commit to their singing and it would have given this whole thing a little more pizazz. Perhaps the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to a musical anyhow, but OLIVER oom-pah-pah’ed through the streets and he was a suffering orphan, so Hooper could have injected a little oomph here, right?
Yes, it pains me to say this, but LES MISERABLES is a flat, dreary, ugly failure, with occasional glimmers of hope to keep you watching, but not enough to make you want to do a little gavot outside the theatre. The main culprit, besides the live singing choice, is Tom Hooper’s hideous direction and Danny Cohen’s awful cinematography. Having worked together on THE KING’S SPEECH, I blame them as a package. Within the first ten minutes of the film, I wanted to shut my eyes and just listen to the music instead. Like in their previous film, their bag of tricks are a fish-eye lens which distorts wide shots to the point where it hurts the eye, a swooping crane shot to start a number, and then a planted extreme close-up to play out the rest. It works out okay for Anne Hathaway’s big early song, the iconic “I DREAMED A DREAM”, because we as an audience haven’t quite caught on yet that this is how most of the big numbers will play out. She trembles and cries uncontrollably as she delivers the number in one long take. She’s not bad, in fact, it’s a wonderfully committed performance, but had it come later in the film, I would have been too exhausted to care. Hugh Jackman, however, is a humorless, insufferable Jean Valjean. Despite his sing-speaking (and I don’t think he’s the right voice for this part), he seems to be overdoing the emotions and playing to that proverbial back row. Unfortunately, what Hooper miscalculated is that it’s ok to do that if you’re literally in the back row of a playhouse, but in film, audiences ALL have “front row seats” in a sense.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to watch EVERY HUGE EMOTIONAL MOMENT in extreme close-up. Had Hooper simply varied the shots, relaxed a little with the crazy handheld and steadicam moves, and thrown the wide angle lenses into the Seine, he would have at least made something watchable. Certainly Production Designer Eve Stewart and Costume Designer Paco Delgado gave him wonderful sets and wardrobe. With regards to the editing, I feel a little sorry for Chris Dickens and Melanie Oliver, as I think they were presented with awful images and a tonally all-over-the-place nightmare to assemble.
Ouch, I know. And I haven’t even gotten to the rest of the cast. Eddie Redmayne, from MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, sings well and uses his beautiful fragility to play Marius, the leader of the resistance. His big number, “EMPTY CHAIRS AT EMPTY TABLES” was quite lovely and sad. When the play came out in the early 80s, this number seemed to speak to the loss people were feeling around AIDS. Now, the feelings directly relate to our current wars, so the emotions of this moment feel direct. STILL, my problem with him and the other supporting players, is their utter self-seriousness and how shallow their roles seem on film. From a distance of a stage, one can look at Marius, Eponine and Cosette as little iconic gems, but in glaring close-ups, one begins to realize that their parts are fairly thankless. Samantha Barks’ plays Eponine, whose big moment, “ON MY OWN”, while pretty and heartbreaking, didn’t get me in the gut, because I hardly know the character at that point, if ever. Amanda Seyfried does the best that she can with the boring, perfect adult Cosette, but seriously, all she’s playing is a Disney Princess who’s missing an animated bird or two to flutter around her fingers. As for their singing, let the headline forever read, SAMANTHA BARKS BUT AMANDA BLEATS. You’ll know it when you see it, trust me.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter bring their SWEENEY TODD-isms to the parts of the Thenardiers. Built-in as comic relief, the direction and editing of their standout song, “MASTER OF THE HOUSE” sucked all the life and fun out of the proceedings. Boo!! A shame since Cohen is the only person in the entire film to sing in a French accent (seriously, what is up with all the heavy English accents in a French musical?), and Carter has a stiff-upper-lip delivery to her singing that drew me in, despite the imagery making me want to puke. Weird, but one of the few soft spots I had for this cast was with Daniel Huttlestone as the little street urchin, Gavroche. He possesses a spirit and humor lacking in almost everyone else. His moments seemed to be screaming to everyone else, “It’s a musical! I know it’s about VERY tough times, but we’re talking fantasy filmmaking. Go with the rhythm and enjoy yourselves!”
Finally, we get to Russell Crowe as Javert. His is not the voice of a trained opera singer, which, face it, LES MIZ is an opera. He sings more like a pop star, and it doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else, but since he’s the main villain who is often alone in the story, it was fine by me that his delivery was different. One thing Russell Crowe knows how to do is act on film. He knows how to underplay and simply BE. For me, he gives one of the better performances. I learned something from Sheldon Larry, who directed LEAVE IT ON THE FLOOR. Often, he would tell the actors to just let the lines do the work. I thought it was always a good note. It enabled the actors to get out of their heads and just relax into the moments. Crowe, for me, does this beautifully in this film. His song, “STARS”, which is one of my favorites is delivered in his usual no-nonsense style, allowing us to hear the fantastic melody and enjoy it. Hooper, I think, finally saw what he was getting here, and for once, he mixes in wide, undistorted shots, and lets the song do all the work.
On a side note, this film is VERY faithful to the stage play. Only one song was cut, the hideous, atonal “DOG EATS DOG” which finds Thenardier trudging through the sewers picking off the spoils of war. I didn’t miss it. There’s one new number, “SUDDENLY” intentionally wedged into the film so that they could get a Best Original Song Oscar. It’s forgettable and even more unnecessary than the addition of “YOU MUST LOVE ME” to the film adaptation of EVITA. But what do I know? That song went on to win an Academy Award, and LES MIZ may follow suit. But I will always remember this film as an opportunity squandered. Call it LES MISS.
Glenn Gaylord is an award-winning Writer/Director/Producer and graduate of the UCLA School of Film and Television.