Musical “Les Miserables” Stumbles in the Transition to the Big Screen

Movie Review: Les Miserables (2012) on Film
by Larry Murray

For the film Les Misérables, director Tom Hooper took a perfectly good musical which is normally viewed in a theatre at 50 or more paces from the stage and zoomed in. Cinematographer Danny Cohen photographed it so closely that the camera does everything but swoop up Anne Hathaway’s nostrils for her by now famous rendition of “another day dawning,” her hair cropped so close she looks like her own twin brother.

If actors are said to “chew the scenery” when they overact, this film allows them to chew up the big screen, too, leaving all sense of proportion in tatters.

Hooper, by all accounts, spent months in the editing room with Chris Dickens choosing – it seems – the most dramatic close up of each sung lyric that they could find. So close, in fact, that half the time you almost feel as if you are in bed with the performers.You can hear them breathing next to you.

Real theatricality would never benefit from Les Miz being smooshed in your face like a piece of wedding cake, yet every song is subjected to extreme closeups as if to underline the perfect synchronization between actors and score. Much has been made of the fact that Hooper recorded the voices as the actors acted, not afterwards. It is a novel approach and I liked the honesty of the voices, but it was undermined by the oppressive intimacy. In fact, in one of the first reviews to appear, critic Todd McCarthy wrote in the Hollywood Reporter: “A gallery of stellar performers wages a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea and a laboriously repetitive visual approach.” My, my, my, that’s harsh. I wouldn’t go that far.

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway

Critics are already divided on the film, and soon the people will chime in. Many will approve and feast on its forced intimacy, others will be repulsed. There is a consensus building that Anne Hathaway deserves an Oscar for her heart wrenching performance, especially of the song “I dreamed a dream” which is done in virtually one long take. It is incredible.

Broadway musicals are hard to do right on film. Just look at the botched job done on the 2004 Phantom of the Opera, another grossly over-rated Broadway musical designed for tourists and infrequent theatre-goers who clamor for the spectacle of it all. But Hollywood also misunderstood and made a botch of the simple revue Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1975) when its overuse of the zoom lens was just one of many fatal flaws.

Unlike Chicago (2002) which took a lot of clever risks in its transfer to film and therefore won six Academy Awards including Best Picture, this is a musical that will not live up to box office expectations. Instead of opening up the classic tale, it closed it in on itself, bringing the actors too close to the audience, and dissolving the ability to suspend disbelief. Worst of all, the darned thing cost $60+ million to make and except for the opening scene in Act II doesn’t look like it at all.

Hugh Jackman

Hugh Jackman

For those unfamiliar with the story, the film is set in early 19th-century France, and follows the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a burly French peasant of abnormal strength and potentially violent nature, and his never ending quest for redemption after serving 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for starving relatives. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a kindly Bishop inspires him to, but he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert (Russell Crowe). Along the way, Valjean and a slew of characters he becomes entangled with get swept into a revolutionary period in France, where a group of young idealists make their last stand at a street barricade.

Oh, the emotionally susceptible – those who love to weep at soap operas – will come away damp and happy, but the discerning and the jaded – which is actually most of us – will roll their eyes and wish they had spent their 2.5+ hours elsewhere. Hooper pushes the intimacy way too hard for my taste – and possibly yours – with camera angles poised somewhere between the chin and the forehead so you can’t escape the tale of angst, broken dreams and failure that this dreadful tale gloats over.

Russell Crowe

Russell Crowe

The film has a score that is “sung through” – meaning that is there is little real dialogue. It is all bombastic Claude-Michel Schönberg recitative and cloying tunes that instantly bring Susan Boyle to mind singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” See the film and that song is guaranteed to reverberate in your head for eternity. Still, many will absolutely adore this rich, emotionally charged musical bathos, but a little of it goes a long way with me.

Then there is the matter of the insufferable and seemingly endless message about faith and piety being rewarded while wallowing in mud, being starved and constantly harassed by Russell Crowe. For simple ghoulishness, it is right up there with The Passion of the Christ.

The "boys" of the barricade provide a momentary distraction as they get killed off.

The “boys” of the barricade provide a momentary distraction as they get killed off.

One of the few highlights of the film was the sequence introducing the boys on the barricade. They included Eddie Redmayne as Marius who lived to marry Cosette and Barrington Stage alumnus Aaron Tveit as Enjolras who does not survive the uprising in the film.

But this is also a film that will garner a dozen Oscar nominations, and win but one or two of them, though certainly not best picture, best actor or actress. It does deserve recognition for its achievements in sound recording. In fact, it may be best remembered for this.

Not only is the overall mood of the film dark, it is based after all on the Victor Hugo novel. Sadly, so is the projected image, the better to bludgeon the viewer with just how awful it was back in the 1800’s in France. And while the film had some of the filthiest, shopworn, ragged, grunge style costumes ever devised, its CGI effects were pretty unconvincing, which might explain why so much of the film is dingy and dark. Hides the dust.

Towards its end, the film finally brought the beginnings of a tear to my eye, as we reached the final scene of a dying Jean Valjean and Hugh Jackman gets the redemption he has struggled for all his life. This was a fine dramatic moment, but it also meant the film had finally reached its end, or at least the final scene before ten minutes of credits.

Some 60 million people have seen a live performance of the musical Les Miserables on stage. Will that many see the film version once it opens on Christmas Day? Die hard fans of the musical will surely love it, as will those who love messages of struggle and martyrdom. Many film buffs will have to see it once just to see if it is as awful as some curmudgeonly critics say it is.

I await your reaction.

4 thoughts on “Musical “Les Miserables” Stumbles in the Transition to the Big Screen

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  2. Good review. Now I want to buy the soundtrack and can’t wait to see this movie again! I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the Oscar for best film of the year, because it’s one of the most powerful movie-going experiences of the year.

  3. At first I found this review somewhat harsh. Now having seen the film Murray was spot on and may even have pulled a punch here and there. I found Hugh Jackman so so at best and Russell Crowe just awful. Yes, Ann Hathaway, an audience favorite, is a lock for an Oscar.

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