Tom Hooper’s starry adaptation of the long running Boublil & Shönberg musical (itself of course adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel) arrives, with curious serendipity, just in time for awards season. Although the RSC’s original stage production was not universally well received, even if its notices were not necessarily as damning as common perception would have it, Les Misérables went on to become one of the most popular musical productions of all time and at the point of writing still regularly sells out in London’s West End more than twenty-five years later. During that time it has gathered a rather fanatical fan base and become a phenomenon in its own right. As might be expected then, interest in a big screen outing has been high for much of the show’s lifetime but for one reason or another plans have never quite come together – until now. Riding on the coattails of the success of the (vastly overpraised) The King’s Speech, Les Misérables: the movie is now a reality.
The big selling point of this adaptation seems to be the decision to allow the actors to sing live, rather than lip-synch to a pre-recorded vocal track as was usual in the classic Hollywood musicals, and it is, frankly, the correct one. Singing live allows the actors to fully inhabit their roles and give a truer, more rounded performance than they would otherwise be able to do. However, it does have its downsides as in the vocals are necessarily rougher, obviously not as polished as they might be sung in a booth free from the real world set constraints and helped along in post by talented sound technicians. Whether one prefers a stronger acting performance or a totally flawless vocal one (leaving aside the ideal of having them both) is perhaps a personal preference and very much open to debate but singing live certainly eliminates the old stuffiness and forced emotion that often characterised the classic musical. Now that the technology exists to make this much easier to accomplish, the practice of live singing could be what finally wakes the movie musical from its long slumber.
Unfortunately, not many of Hooper’s other decisions are as helpful and where Les Misérables falls down it is by his own hand. Largely the directorial problems that plague the film are similar to those of The King’s Speech but here are vastly magnified by the epic nature of the material which, it seems clear, is simply too unwieldy for this style to handle. Broadly speaking, despite its large scale, Les Misérables is guilty of the sin most British cinema is accused of (often unjustly, but not in this case) – it is effectively a big TV movie rather than something which looks authentically cinematic. Much of the film is shot in extreme close up and even with the actors singing directly into the camera like an awkward soliloquy in a televised Shakespearean production. You might think that giving us such supreme access to the actor’s face, something which can never happen in a theatre of course, would allow us ever deeper into the actor’s performance but what it really ends up doing is forcing us into contemplating their performance rather than the drama. That Hooper uses this same technique so often lends the film an odd sort of formulaic monotony which actively works against the audience’s ability to engage.
Further to that the film as a whole is totally monotone, everything only comes in one variety of ‘loud’. Trevor Nunn, the musical’s original stage director is often criticised for his tendency to produce needlessly long productions Hooper’s film version by contrast moves at an extremely fast pace. However, where the stage version has its various moments of introspection or levity everything in Hooper’s construction is quite literally in your face. There’s very little difference in tone between Valjean’s soliloquy and the bombast of One Day More or Do You Hear The People Sing. The comedy numbers, Master of the House & Beggars at the Feast, even in a much compressed format fall completely flat and only serve to hold up the action – the added santa jokes also aren’t in any way humorous and are, if anything, cringeworthy. Similarly, cutting Dog Eat Dog and relegating the Thérnadiers to comic relief only eliminates the darkness of their characters and paints them as slightly ridiculous Dickensian like rogues rather than the ruthless, selfish, cruel characters they actually are (though it is to be acknowledged that their primary role in the stage musical is that of comic relief).
Hooper also employs several seemingly random canted angles and odd compositions which do nothing except distract. This is further exacerbated by some extremely misguided editing decisions such as in the ensemble number One Day More in which the fast cutting between extreme close-ups makes it near impossible to follow the action or engage with the emotion of the song. Everything just seems to move from one thing to the next with very little connecting it and in the end it feels like a series of music videos connected only by a vague theme.
The saving grace is the high quality of the performances the actors contribute to the film. Anne Hathaway’s Fantine is rightly gaining high praise everywhere for her extraordinary rendition of I Dreamed a Dream with all the pain and bitterness of a woman seduced, betrayed and degraded by life. Eddie Redmayne however, who seems to be getting far less attention, is something of a revelation in the often thankless role of Marius with his impassioned innocence and sweetly powerful singing voice. Jackman in fact turns out to be something of a disappointment, especially when it comes to Valjean’s stand out song Bring Him Home which doesn’t suit him vocally and never quite ignites (in part due to Hooper’s direction). Russel Crowe’s performance as the righteous Javert is an odd one, even if not as bad as some reviews have made out – his singing is not exactly bad but perhaps incongruous with those around him. He also fails to integrate his performance sufficiently and there’s a curious disconnect in his performance when singing. Both Jackman and Crowe come more alive during the confrontation scene, however, the effect of this is somewhat lost through unfortunate sound mixing. Aaron Tveit also gives a very strong performance as the doomed leader Enjolras but it’s a shame that he seems to be so low on the sound mix that we often cannot hear him. As a bonus for those followers of the London theatre scene there are also many cameos from the cream of the West End ranging from background support to featured lesser roles and it maybe that this film has the highest Olivier award count ever seen on the big screen.
It is perhaps a fault in the musical, though the stage has more mitigating factors, but given there have been so many films with a revolutionary bent recently it’s odd that the uprising itself should come across as merely plot point and there’s very little time given over to the plight of the poor other than a few throw away lines about having had a failed revolution already and wound up with another king on the throne and everything worse than before. The student uprising lacks any sort of wider context and one might be forgiven for thinking that it really is ‘a game for rich young boys to play’ and that the people do not join them is not altogether unexpected. In short, despite the commitment of the actors, it lacks passion and comes across as a soulless exercise that fails to rouse the audience let alone the people of post-revolutionary Paris.
Where Les Misérables succeeds it does so because it is ‘Les Mis’ rather than any particular aspect of the filming and in fact often succeeds in spite of itself. It is certainly not the disaster that it might have been and the sung live approach helps ground it in a reality where it may have become even more overblown with non-sync singing but Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables fails on a cinematic level. It doesn’t manage to provoke the instant standing ovation that the closing music is engineered to – where the theatre audience is thrown to its feet the cinema one is wondering where it parked the car. As a film it’s pleasant enough for the most part but will leave you hungry for something more fulfilling later on.