Now playing in Philadelphia, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s timeless story, transmuting the long-running Broadway sensation “Les Misérables” into a film, is a feast of sensations in its musicality, character-driven narrative arc and gorgeous set design, attentive to the very minutest period detail. The cinematography is crystalline, with a dazzling pallor juxtaposed between a war-driven tincture of ochers, reds, dark blacks, bleeding greys and stony browns. The pacing is perfect, leading us through all the famous melodies with requisite speed, yet without skipping any important dramatic pause. Though this story has been filmed and adapted countless numbers of times and in countless numbers of ways, this iteration is extraordinary.
Even the heavy reliance on British accents (except Amanda Seyfried’s “Cosette”, who humorously maintains an quasi-American accent) to signify a foreign early-to-mid nineteenth century France, which I normally find highly annoying, distracting and ethnocentrically arrogant in films that take place in a (non-British) specific time and locale, did not annoy me very much in this respect. This may be because the grandeur and poise of a musical (and this musical, especially) is in of itself different from a solely dramatic film. Because a musical already takes on a form of artificiality- the liberty of which derives from the fact that human beings, in real life, do not break into song every five minutes- any generalized principal to bring the audience back to a natural absorption of dialog and music grounded in reality is more readily accepted. So, the accents I quickly forgot- even Sacha Baron Cohen’s schizophrenic French-quasi-British-somewhat-Cockney amalgamation he pulls off with masterful talent, for it fits well with his insane character. It all- somehow, and often just barely- works.
In fact the only criticism I have for the film falls upon Russell Crowe- with whom I normally cannot find fault, ever- nor in many, if any, of his projects. Yet here, it is painfully apparent that his singing ability is not as strong as any of his colleagues. But, I kept questioning myself, isn’t he known for being in some kind of band? For being able to sing with some kind of competence? Why isn’t he singing with more strength? In fact, it remained a constant surprise and question, any time he stopped purely acting and opened up his mouth to sing: why did they cast him? It seems the Oscar pedigree and his A-list name was the lure which sank that deal, for surely they could have found a lesser known actor with an equally extraordinary acting ability, but who has the singing ability commensurate to such an iconic Broadway role as “Javert”, requiring a hefty ability to sing long, deep and with sonorous beauty? Crowe sounded too often like a weasel gasping for breath.
Tom Hooper excels with his directing style; his ability as displayed and lauded in “The King’s Speech” was no one-hit wonder, and he can most likely expect another Oscar nod, though probably not the Oscar itself, again. It was well publicized how Hooper took innovative risks with this musical, filming all the singing in real-time along with the actors and orchestras as each scene was shot, instead of recording the music/singing earlier in a studio and having the actors lip-sync when it came time to film. There is, as a result, an acting/singing strength trade off- the scenes are more powerful because they are more natural and flow better with each actors’ in-the-moment instincts, but the singing itself is left a bit breathless, which would otherwise not happen had each actor recorded the songs via studio technology. So, the innovation is performed- and I feel it overall makes the musical a more powerful experience- but the songs do somewhat suffer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Crowe’s song deliverance.
Not many musicals translate very well into a film- most can make the transition to some degree, but some lend themselves more naturally to the filmic narrative technique than others. (“CATS” is a good example of a show that will probably never be a huge studio production.) However, “Les Misérables” seems like it was meant to be a film from the very first moment it opened on the London stage decades ago- the time sequencing, character structures, plot intricacies- never before have I understood so well and to such a degree of clarity everything that was going on within the musical plot itself. Being a film of this scope and grandiosity becomes “Les Misérables” just as surely as Victor Hugo’s moving story inspired Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil to create the musical thirty-three years ago. And one last thing- the applause after the film ended was immediate, without hesitation, from the entire audience, and resounding. Even with its weaknesses, this is a moving film of great power. Everyone did a superlative job.