As a musical theater nerd, I have a million thoughts to condense into a semi-organized review of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, an epic musical turned into a film filled with a few moments of epic success and several moments of epic disaster. It couldn’t pain me more to say this, as I have great admiration for the show and its music, I loved the casting on paper, and I’ve thoroughly loved Tom Hooper’s previous works, The King’s Speech and John Adams. However, between the bizarre directorial choices, the total lack of editing rhythm, the wildly inconsistent performances, and the utterly baffling absence of epic sweeping feel, the parts that soar are tragically outweighed. Combine all of this with a show that doesn’t easily lend itself to a transfer from the stage medium to cinema, and you are left with an upsetting mess for musical theater folks like myself.
The plot, from the Victor Hugo novel of the same name, begins with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) working as a slave after stealing bread to feed his sister’s child. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is a strict enforcer of the law, and although Valjean is up for parole, he doesn’t trust that Valjean will live the straight and narrow path. After an act of kindness helps him clean up his act, Valjean becomes a foreman at a factory. When one of the workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), gets fired and subjected to great cruelty unbeknownst to him, he agrees to pay the debt and care for her child, Cosette (as a teen played by Amanda Seyfried). Eventually, as revolution comes to a boil in France, Cosette is spotted by a young teen named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls head over heels in love… even though he’s about to fight on the frontlines with his friend, Enjolras (Aaron Tvelt). Marius attempts to learn who Cosette is and stay in touch with her with the help of his friend, Eponine (Samantha Barks), who is secretly madly in love with him.
We span multiple decades in perhaps the first hour of screen time, so it’s very important that we clearly establish the basic character conflict. The opening scene is set in a massive boatyard, in which the slaves are tugging a boat ashore despite massive crashing waves. This is absolutely an easy set-up for a great dramatic visual. Tom Hooper instead chooses to cut violently between a series of extreme close-ups that would make Michael Bay blush. I wish I were exaggerating. I couldn’t tell who all was singing, what they were saying, who they were singing to, where Russell Crowe was, why they were tugging the boat, why Russell Crowe hated Hugh Jackman so much, why Hugh Jackman was forced to lift a massive flag, and why Hugh Jackman is so super-strong. Granted, some of these things are things you merely accept if you’re absorbed into the style of the piece from the jump, but when you’re holding your head from the rapid-fire editing, it hurts. It made me feel like I was in for a very long three hours.
The first few numbers are shot in lengthy takes done entirely in extreme close-up, regardless of whether the actor is moving around or standing still, singing softly or singing loudly. Nearly all singing in the film is done with the actor singing directly to the camera—very rarely do we get shots of multiple people singing to each other (in a show where nearly everyone sings everything and there is much interaction… this is a problem). These close-ups cause a number of problems: they not only are aesthetically stagnant after the eighth or twelfth time (this is not an exaggeration), but they highlight the different acting styles of the performers in a jarring manner. Hugh Jackman at the beginning goes full blast, with lip quivering and spittle flying, while Russell Crowe, his scene partner, is controlled to the point of blandness. They make each other look bad as a result. Same goes for Anne Hathaway, who makes even the most over-the-top actor look like they are in a John Cassavetes film.
… let’s talk about Anne Hathaway for a moment. I realize there is a cache of people who despise every step Anne Hathaway makes. I also realize that those people must be absolutely clawing at their own flesh at the knowledge that Hathaway is very likely to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress this year. Generally, I am a fan… but throw me in with the flesh-clawers in regards to this particular performance. Granted, the role of Fantine doesn’t really allow for subtlety—it’s far closer to misery porn, with humiliation after humiliation. Yet there simply must be a more interesting acting choice than to look like you’re trying to show desperation to the back of a crowded auditorium, especially when Tom Hooper keeps the camera so close to your face that it’s a wonder the top of your head and the bottom of your chin stay in frame as much as they do. I don’t fault Hathaway fully for this, but you’ve got to think she realized how close these takes were to her face, yet still chose to take it to this level. It’s a beautifully sung ham dinner with sides of ham and a ham cocktail. You’re far more aware of the performer than the character her entire time on screen.
Another issue early on is many of the conventions of musical theater being so difficult to reconcile on the screen. First, the swift change of setting: in “Who Am I,” Valjean sings from a church whether he should go down to a courtroom and confess his crime to save an innocent man. In the stage production, Valjean can simply exist in spotlight, or the scene change can occur behind him as he sings. Here, Hooper simply cuts from the church to Valjean suddenly in the courtroom. While Hooper could have found some sort of device or stylistic approach to make this transition less sloppy, it’s something the film struggles with, especially during the passages of time and mid-song setting changes. Also, Les Miserables is famous for its overlapping parts: all the characters we’ve met sing at once, although not to each other and sometimes in totally different settings. On stage, we can watch all of them together through the use of abstract staging, or, you know, just putting people far apart on the stage and we can turn our head around to see them all. In cinema, the director controls what we see. Shooting from far away to allow us to choose what to look at seems distinctly uncinematic, not to mention it clashes with Hooper’s “all close ups, all the time” style. So he simply flips back and forth during overlapping parts, as if he’s quickly changing channels. It sadly lacks the same powerful impact that the stage production carries.
However, I will say that after Fantine leaves, I found myself enjoying Les Miserables more. Jackman tones down his energy level, including for the lovely “Suddenly,” an original song for this film version… though belting the entirety of Bring Him Home robs it of its tenderness. Sacha Baron Cohen’s mugging with Helena Bonham Carter is welcome relief in a comedic interlude, admittedly jarring in tone, but there’s only so much you can do with the musical theater convention of “comedic relief characters.” It’s important to maintain a steady tone in cinema, but this sudden change from misery to buffoonery was the least of the film’s problems up to that point. I actually grew strongly invested in the film once Marius, Enjolras, and Eponine come into play, which is odd, since this is generally the least interesting part of the stage musical for me (the standard “love at first sight” story). Eddie Redmayne doesn’t have particularly dynamite chemistry with Amanda Seyfried, but his singing voice is strong compared to the other film actors and his demeanor is composed (read: he doesn’t ham it up in Hooper’s close-ups). Aaron Tvelt and Samantha Barks are by far the best performers in the film, and it’s not a surprise that they come from the world of stage musical theater. They know how to act with their voices and not their faces: their notes are strong and clear, and they come off wonderfully honest. It made me wonder how good this could have been with all stage musical actors. It also made me wonder about the parallel world cloaked in justice in which Samantha Barks is getting all the hype for this debut that Anne Hathaway is getting. Barks slays On My Own—the best solo number in the film, and perhaps not coincidentally one of very few not shot exclusively in graphic close-up. She is gorgeous, earnest, young, and energetic. Keep an eye out for her in the future, as she will be getting an avalanche of offers.
A lot of folks are beating up on Russell Crowe’s performance, as his voice certainly strains and his demeanor seems oddly low-key compared to everyone else. I chalk the low-key performance to an acting choice: he clearly has shown in other films that he can go way over the top if necessary. I refuse to think that just because he was singing, he couldn’t emote. He likely saw how close-up these shots were all going to be and, like most screen actors would normally do, adjusted his energy output accordingly. I think the biggest issue with Crowe as Javert is neither his singing nor his acting—it’s just wrong at a casting level, I’m afraid. Crowe always seems to be thinking, and Javert is marked by a distinct lack of thought. Javert doesn’t WANT to think at all about the moral complexities at play: he knows the law, the law is final. Crowe’s acting improves by leaps and bounds when Javert goes undercover into the rebellion: playing a liar is absolutely within Crowe’s comfort zone. I just don’t get that raw obsession, swiftly and actively denying any traces of doubt that might try to wiggle their way into his system. If you’d like to see something closer to Javert, check out Jessica Chastain as Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, whose relentless obsession with upholding what she believes is right even if it means doing things that aren’t right is positively Javertian.
I really could have lived with this cast and all of the choices they make if Hooper simply did his job better. When I left the theater with my girlfriend, she noted, “You would think they’d have more of those sweeping epic shots.” She’s right. One would think that. Hooper has one camera trick: he pulls straight up, above the actor’s head right as his or her song ends, revealing the entire city of Paris. There were so many numbers where I was writhing in my seat, waiting for a smart camera movement. Les Miserables has music that gets huge, soaring into dramatic stratospheres, begging on hands and knees for bold epic stylistic choices. I understand why doses of reality within the proceedings might help ground the operatic nature of the storytelling on film… but you can have your close-ups while still making the overall visual palate epic. During multiple numbers, I became distracted from the movie playing before my eyes because I was too busy thinking about how easy some of these choices could have been. For example: during Javert and Valjean’s confrontation in the hospital, show them singing at one another! We never see both actors singing at the same time, both in the frame physically confronting one another. We’ll see Jackman’s face and Crowe’s back, intercut with Crowe’s face and Jackman’s back. Or during Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, how about you show Marius… SINGING TO THE EMPTY CHAIRS AND EMPTY TABLES? It’s the subject of the song, not to mention the damn title! His friends are dead, and he’s singing to the empty chairs and empty tables where they used to sit… wouldn’t it make sense to show that interaction? Or during Stars, how about some shots of Javert singing with… the STARS sharing the frame? We might get that for a split second or two between the rapid cuts, but we don’t get the wow image that should’ve been an easy slam dunk. There were some real chances to take strong singers and put them with some strong visuals to create gorgeous moments that one simply can’t manufacture on stage— expand your scope when translating to film, don’t limit it! That’s the main problem with Les Miserables: it’s not the odd casting, the hammy acting, or the horrendous directorial choices. It’s the damn missed opportunity.