Review: Les Misérables
What I am about to say I say as someone who truly loves Les Misérables the musical, a dyed-in-the-wool fan raised on its soundtrack as some are raised on pacifiers and breast milk. What I have to say is this: Victor Hugo chose an apt title, for Tom Hooper’s 2012 screen adaptation of the beloved Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schönberg musical Les Misérables is, well, miserable. In almost every conceivable way, the film destroys, obliterates, and, shall I say, pisses upon the sacred Broadway text that is Les Misérables. Before its release, my expectations were high, but I was also willing to give it a chance. The trailer almost made me cry. I had hope. I tried to keep as open a mind as possible. If the film was good, I was ready to accept it with open arms. But it wasn’t.
For those unfamiliar with the film, the musical, or the novel upon which it is based, Les Misérables chronicles the struggles of Jean Valjean as he attempts to hide from the police inspector Javert, who has pursued him for many decades. It’s a complicated story to adapt to the screen, as the novel is exceedingly long and concerns many points French history that are unfamiliar to American audiences. For the most part, the stage musical itself manages to tell the story well, though at times it can feel rushed and weak on character development. Another difficulty faced by any filmmaker wishing to translate Les Misérables to the screen is that there is no spoken dialogue- it is all sung. The entire musical is essentially a watered-down opera, or at least an opera that one can buy a soundtrack album for. Tom Hooper seemed to me a decent enough choice to helm this enterprise; his last film, The King’s Speech, received great acclaim, and I greatly enjoyed his HBO miniseries John Adams. However, Hooper made several fatal errors in directing Les Misérables and in doing so reveals himself to be a less-than-talented filmmaker. Let’s begin by dissecting the first and most obvious of the film’s flaws: the singing.
Casting is crucial for any Hollywood musical, particularly those based on stage plays, as its difficult to find a balance between “well-known actor” and “talented singer.” Many successful actors are (at least in some sense) trained singers, so holding one or two notes shouldn’t be a problem, but Les Misérables isn’t one of those musicals. Since the entire film is sung, any reasonable filmmaker would try to throw in as many experienced Broadway actors as possible. I have to give Hooper credit for using actors such as Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, and Colm Wilkinson, all of whom have extensive experience on the stage, but at the same time he uses too many big-name actors with minimal singing experience. Hugh Jackman has proved himself time and time again to be a talented vocalist, yet something goes terribly wrong for him in Les Misérables, as his rendition of “Bring Him Home,” a number which is typically deeply moving, is a tad painful. Although Jackman is a tenor, I prefer when he sings in the lower registers. Others simply just haven’t had enough experience; Amanda Seyfried’s nervous vibrato, for example, sounds as if she is singing into a fan. However, the problems with singing are obviously exacerbated by Hooper’s much-lauded attempt at musical “realism.” While he isn’t the first filmmaker to make actors sing live (Rex Harrison’s awfully-large bow-tie served as a microphone in 1964′s My Fair Lady, and more recent musicals like Hedwig and the Angry Itch have used the same technique), he is the only one to use it this extensively. It goes without saying that Les Misérables requires some heavy physical acting, and neither the acting nor the singing are aided by this technique. Hooper said he wanted the acting to dictate the singing, not the other way around, but because the actors are often out of breath or crying, the singing falls flat, and in the case of Russell Crowe, the singing is such a concern that it takes away from his acting. In many places, the over-use of live singing almost creates a comedic effect, particularly in scenes between Javert and Valjean, to the film’s overall detriment. However, there are a few places where the live singing does assist the film, but this is mostly limited to Hathaway’s shattering performance of “I Dreamed a Dream.” While most non-theatre-goers are familiar with the song thanks to Susan Boyle, many have now been introduced to the sheer emotional potential it has. I’ve been critical of Hathaway’s acting ability in the past, but in her few minutes in this film, she has considerably improved my opinion of her.
But Hathaway’s brief appearance doesn’t make up for many of the film’s other grievous musical sins, particularly the desperate vocal flounderings of Russell Crowe. Yes, he’s a good actor, but the man just can’t sing. If Crowe’s vocals had been dubbed, the film would still have whatever integrity and “honesty” Hooper was striving for, and its overall quality would improve considerably. But because Hooper instead insists on pretentious realism, Crowe’s performance greatly suffers. It’s not like Crowe hasn’t had singing experience (he was the lead singer and guitarist for the band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts), but that was in a pop/rock environment. I haven’t listened to Mr. Crowe’s terribly-named band, but I could imagine his voice sounding considerably better under those circumstances. However, in the shadows of Broadway, he frankly seems awful.
My other main issue with the singing is that it is sometimes rendered unintelligible due to acting, particularly in the opening scene. Some of the musical’s most emotional moments are obliterated because the actors choose to act around their singing, as in “Who Am I,” where Jackman strangely rushes and then slows down repeatedly. To me this could have been one of the film’s most moving numbers, but Jackman’s distracted acting takes away from it. The introduction of a new song, “Suddenly,” also takes away from the film. The musical’s creators insisted it was created to fill some sort-of “gap” in the relationship between Cosette, Valjean’s adopted daughter, and Valjean, but I think anyone with a good degree of smarts can tell that it’s basically just a ploy to sell sheet music and soundtrack albums, as well as bring in awards for Best Original Song. Tsk, tsk. Hooper feels the need to bait for awards yet again.
But all musical nit-picking aside, the film could have been redeemed if not for Hooper’s inability to direct. In every shot he feels the need to show off Hugh Jackman’s pores in intense close-ups, orput characters at the extreme edges of the frame. He also has a tendency to use unnecessary dutch angles, cut ridiculously quickly, and send the camera flying, and he does all of these things to such a degree that I can’t help but wonder if this was one of his inspirations. He directs like a German expressionist on smack. Based on his usage of purposelessly wonky angles and over-cutting, he’s no different than someone like Michael Bay. The only true difference is that Les Misérables seems to have self-esteem issues while Michael Bay’s films (with the exception of Pearl Harbor) don’t demand to be considered “epics” and don’t really care what you think. What I mean by self-esteem issues is that Les Misérables is probably one of this decade’s greatest examples of what Manny Farber called “white elephant art,” art that begs for you to consider it a masterpiece. It tries terribly hard to fill the canvas of the frame with grand statements on life, but it fails, instead stooping to the levels of pandering and pleading that most award-baiting films find themselves at. In the introduction to his first Great Movies book, Roger Ebert says that whenever any film lover arrives at the pictures of Yasujiro Ozu, they realize that movies aren’t about moving, but about when to move. Maybe Hooper needs to study up on his Ozu. He should become more meditative and cautious with his camera, showing and reflecting on life instead of dictating thoughts and actions and forcing the viewer to feel for these characters. This should happen naturally, not forcefully. He attempts to re-invent the musical by creating an amped-up microwave version, one that gives instant gratification and stimulation. Like an earlier musical from this year, Rock of Ages, Les Misérables attempted to reinvent the musical genre but ended up representing everything that is wrong with the modern musical: a focus on grandiosity and “bigness” rather than emotion. Both films are lumbering and bloated beasts rather than moving portraits of life. One of the quintessential errors of this film is that Hooper thinks the movie-musical genre needs realism in order to be revived, but what he forgets is that all musicals take place in a dream world free of inhibitions and self-consciousness. By forcing “integrity” on a genre that is honest by way of dishonesty (sort-of like how surrealism illuminates the truths of life by showing something totally foreign to reality), Hooper kills his film. Les Misérables wants to be Chicago or West Side Story, a truly innovative musical, but ends up being more like Camelot or Xanadu, suffering from its own excess.
What Hooper fails to realize is that Les Misérables is not a tale of the individual, it is a tale of the mass, a story of the people. By constantly cloistering and cutting off people from each other in his close-ups, where only one person is shown at a time, he completely misses the meaning of Les Misérables. “Do you hear the people sing?” the revolutionaries cry, but obviously Hooper doesn’t hear them. He is focused on sole human beings when he should be weaving a grand tapestry of intersecting lives and characters. Les Misérables is like a 19th-century Babel, showing the crossroads that human lives meet on, but Hooper makes it more self-centered and narcissistic. This is demonstrated most greatly in the “At the End of the Day” sequence, which is filled with more cuts than a Brazilian butcher’s shop. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “the cinema is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.” With this in mind, Les Misérables must be one of the most false films of the year, and Hooper’s obsessions with showing off the Dickensian levels of dirt the poor of France must live with ends up just being distracting and destructive to the film’s overall theme. Even in rousing group numbers such as “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More,” Hooper barely shows the group together, which causes me to wonder how the viewer is supposed to get the feeling of togetherness, of the connectedness of life, of anything. Les Misérables is a musical made for the stage, just like how there are certain books so inseparably tied to the language of the written word that they could never be adapted on film. It is perfect for the stage because it makes use of the entire space of the stage to create a true sense of over-powering togetherness, almost in the manner of Soviet propaganda films. The films of Eisenstein and other early Soviet propagandists rarely had a central protagonist, instead focusing on the mass as a whole. In essence, Les Misérables is emotional propaganda, using the entire cast and stage to convince the audience of its emotional truth. In fact, these early Soviet propaganda films would have been great sources for Hooper to draw on, but it seems like he drew more on modern action films and his own body of work. I have no problem with directors having a personal style; in fact, I encourage it, as lack of style is what I find to be wrong with filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan. But Hooper, like Wes Anderson in this year’s Moonrise Kingdom, becomes too focused on showing off his own style and flair rather than on the story and theme. Through its obsession with Hooper’s self-centered style, Les Misérables becomes propaganda not of the mass, but of the individual. It is no longer the story of Jean Valjean and the many lives he touches, but the story of just Jean Valjean. Or if you want to take it farther, the story of Tom Hooper and his visual palette. Yes, he bookends the film with group shots, but the non-stop use of close-ups just shows a fascination with exploring his own curiousities.
But maybe the problem isn’t with Hooper. Maybe it’s with me. Maybe I wanted too much out of this film. I tried to rein in my expectations, but I think it was inevitable that I would be disappointed in some way. Did others love it? Of course. The audience clapped tremendously, and many people I know have eaten it up. Maybe it’s a problem with me, for not being able to see anything in a non-jaded way, for focusing too much on editing choices and camera movements. Yet at the same time, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Talking about film, dissecting it, dividing it into its little nuts and bolts is what I love, and if there’s nothing to say about a film other than “It was good,” what’s the point? So thank you Tom Hooper, for giving me a terrible film that I have so much to say about. At least that’s one thing you’re good at.
Les Misérables is directed by Tom Hooper (The Damned United, The King’s Speech) and stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and a host of others. Rated PG-13. 160 minutes.