For those of us who are huge fans of film musicals, there is a tragic lack of quality in modern cinema. Sure, occasionally a gem will come along, shaking up the rigid classical structure and offering something exciting, but for every Once there seems to be a handful of Chicagos, Nines and Sweeney Todds. It’s tough out there for the song-and-dance enthusiasts.
With Les Misérables (an adaptation of the stage musical, itself an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel), director Tom Hooper had a better shot at making something great than anyone has for some time. All the pieces were in place: solid source material, a director fresh from awards glory, and a well selected cast of performers. So, after chewing it over for several days, why is it that I’m beginning to think this might be a terrible film?
What works in Les Misérables works very well indeed. First of all, the story itself is top-notch; a bleak melodrama of the French Revolution with an emotional core that still resonates and feels relevant 150 years after its debut.
The cast are for the most part excellent, committing themselves admirably to the challenge of delivering essentially all dialogue through song. Hugh Jackman oozes the nobility required for Jean Valjean, displaying a stunning voice and holding together a performance that could quickly become camp in the wrong hands. Equally good is Eddie Redmayne, playing Marius’ strength and bravery with a well-observed hint of naïveté.
The real acting drawcard however is Anne Hathaway’s sadly brief role, for which she will surely get much attention at awards time. Her performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ one of Les Misérables’ most iconic songs, is quite honestly one of the most powerful pieces of acting I can remember, and is so raw and heart-wrenching that you will be left gasping. Not quite as strong is Russell Crowe, deserving of some credit for putting himself out there, but whose voice just isn’t strong enough to really convey the menace of the villainous Javert.
Unfortunately almost everything else about the film is really handled quite badly. Much like The King’s Speech (Hooper’s previous film), Les Misérables is a victim of over-stylisation and awkward cinematography that is at times inexplicably jarring and, for lack of a better word, ugly. With all of the elaborate set design Hooper is apparently so excited about, for the vast majority of the film he insists on using very tight close-ups, making the sets and backgrounds redundant. It doesn’t help matters that, on the rare occasions when his camera does retreat enough to show a little more, the over-use of blue screen backdrops gives a ghastly, manufactured look, too flat to be anything close to believable.
Whatever Hooper’s reasoning behind the choices he makes with Les Misérables is obviously not for us to know. Adapting a stage musical such as this, I can understand the temptation to capture close-ups, offering an intimacy not possible in a live theatre, and it’s precisely for this reason that the inevitable hero moments each principal character has (like Hathaway’s aforementioned solo) are far and away the best moments in the film.
But surely a huge reason to do this at all would be to free oneself from the restraints of live theatre and indulge the epic nature of Hugo’s original vision? Hooper, far too beholden to the play, instead chooses to merely recreate what could be easily put on stage, not taking advantage of the scope cinema can offer. The result is a well-acted but visually turgid mess, which only seems more misguided the further I get from it.