I’ve noted a few times that I’m not the greatest fan of musicals (every time I see one, actually), but I’m always willing to give any genre a chance (well, maybe not torture porn; I know going in I’m not the most receptive audience). I love the film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I could probably even (vaguely) sing along to it. Les Mis, though. I’ve never seen it performed, never read Victor Hugo’s novel. I didn’t really have any expectations for it either way, except that there’s a danger of being spoiled by hype when something is acclaimed as the best ever of its kind. Fortunately (well, not for those who wanted a definitive movie version), this concern had been thoroughly dampened down by the generally negative word on director Tom Hooper’s choices regarding how to film the adaptation.
The Hooper thing is probably easiest to discuss first, since his choice to shoot ninety percent of the movie in close-up is indeed baffling. In close-up, using wide-angle lenses and mostly handheld. Oh, and plenty of swooping camera movements cut in at random moments. And… Dutch angles. I can kind of see some of the thinking behind some of these choices. He wants to create something raw and immediate, the equivalent with the camera to the dictate that the cast sing live. But the results are anti-intuitive for the most part.
It can work to an extent for a solo, isolated performer singing to themselves, but with any interaction the cast are cut off from each other; an island of their own head and shoulders, usually at one side of an empty frame. There are rarely clear establishing shots, and any sense of geography is by luck rather than design. Worse, the effect of handheld camera is as if someone has been on set making an amateur documentary; it is jarringly eat odds with artifice of the musical form. This is supposed to be an epic tale, but you wouldn’t know it the way Hooper films it. There is no sense of scale, and the extravagant sets more often than not go to waste. Occasionally, the weirdness of his choices seems somehow appropriate; the tavern grotesquery of Master of the House sort-of works, but in general the preponderance of low angle, wide lens shooting yields is distorting and tonally inappropriate. Given how visually illiterate Les Mis, I wouldn’t let Tom Hooper mow your lawn if I were you.
That said, despite Hooper’s best (or worst) efforts, the tale remains an involving one The songs are mostly strong, with a clear sense of narrative and purpose. This is Hugh Jackman’s show, and he gives a phenomenal performance as Jean Valjean, binding the disparate elements together and showing both heart and a belting pair of lungs. He’s so good that, when the young love/revolution plotline arrives during the second half, the film is off-balanced. Maybe this is a problem with the stage version too, but the proceedings only pick up again whenever Jackman’s on screen. I don’t think this is particularly the fault of Eddie Redmayne and Amanda Seyfried in that I’m not sure any performers could make what is a fairly sudden an insipid declaration of love gripping. The revolutionary speechifying and warbling are similarly laboured.
I don’t have much comment about the vocal performances; to my tin ear everyone sounded fine, although poor Russell Crowe is clearly not as proficient as his co-stars. Javert seems like a thankless sort of part anyway; enough screen time that he shouldn’t be a mere cypher, but insufficient depth to allow him to rise above being a real stinker. His eventual fate rather reminded me of how Captain Kirk will sometimes confuse an alien or robot into self-destruction by introducing it to human concepts such as “love” or “emotion”.
I shouldn’t have dipped into the DVD extras, as now I can find little positive to say about gushing diva Anne Hathaway. Yeah, she cut her hair. She’s amazingly brave, blah blah. Whatever. It’s not like she’s stricken with alopecia. I found myself curiously unmoved by the plight of Fantine once she was ejected from the workhouse. Her subsequent mistreatment felt overly schematic, almost as if it was there just to lead into I Dreamed a Dream. Which, despite being one of the few sequences where Hooper just lets his performer get on with it, left me stone-hearted.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter’s comic relief didn’t really work for me either; perhaps they are more effective on stage, where the emotional stakes are higher and so the humorous release they provided is more necessary.
Nevertheless, I was caught up in Valjean’s journey through the decades. Jackman does all the heavy lifting, essentially carrying the piece while his director repeatedly fails the production. Even though Hooper’s film is a failure, enough of the musical’s essence survives to convince me that, done right, Les Misérables has a claim on its reputation.