Early buzz was good. Like, Best Picture good. Oscars all-around to the entire cast, life-changing good. Its opening day set a best-ever record for a movie musical at the box office, and was also one of the strongest Christmas Day openings on record. Director Tom Hooper had his cast sing live on set (rather than in the studio) for a change. Already, you could hear the kudos wafting in. “Bravo! Revolutionary! Vive la France!”
So does Les Misérables live up to the hype?
Ehh. Kind of.
Les Misérables has a lot more in common with other recent much-awaited Broadway adaptations — The Phantom Of The Opera, Rent — than it probably wants to. It’s a bit more satisfying overall than either of those films, yet it suffers from the same problems that plague nearly every movie musical: it’s bloated, not all the numbers translate to the big screen, and the big, broad character arcs that work on stage simply don’t always have the same impact cinematically.
Parts of Les Misérables are brilliant. Parts of it are pretty terrible. Average them together and it’s still pretty good — though not, perhaps, the sweeping epic movie-musical-to-end-all-movie-musicals we’ve been led to believe.
The story begins, of course, with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a thief working off his debt to society who bails on parole. He makes an enemy of Javert (Russell Crowe), the prison guard/policeman he will spend the rest of his life evading. This is intended as the central conflict of the story (in every incarnation), yet somehow, in this movie musical, it doesn’t quite work. Is it Russell Crowe’s less-than-formidable singing? Hugh Jackman’s genial but not-completely-smoldering leading man performance? Or are Valjean and Javert’s numbers in the musical simply not that show-stopping? Not a newsflash — Les Misérables is one seriously sprawling story. There are a lot of characters, several time jumps, and a few very significant plot threads. The larger story concerns some young revolutionaries who make a stand against the status quo and die for their efforts, but Jean Valjean and Javert are only tangentially involved in this. They aren’t particularly for or against the cause the revolutionaries are fighting for; at least, not in this movie. Isn’t this a problem, when the central conflict of the movie is an issue that neither the hero nor the villain cares about?
I’m sure Victor Hugo’s novel does a better job of tying this all together, and the stage musical, too. Of course, Valjean does start out as the very sort of poor, destitute soul suffering during France’s own (much deadlier) Occupy Wall Street. What it demonstrates about Les Misérables the movie, though, is that Tom Hooper isn’t able to find the movie story within the musical story; he seems unaware of when the story is working and when it isn’t. It’s easy to backseat-direct a movie musical, to say which numbers should have been better and which should have been cut. But I’m going to anyway. Hooper seems to want to preserve as much of the stage musical as possible, which might please purists — but as cinema, too much of it is much too Broadway, and not nearly cinematic enough.
Watching Les Misérables is more like watching live theater than most movie musicals, which works both for and against it. And even if Jean Valjean and Javert are the stars of the show in the novel and on Broadway (and I’m not entirely convinced that they are), it is the younger characters and performers who steal the show in this version.
I’m getting my complaints out of the way early, for there’s plenty in Les Misérables that’s praiseworthy. Most notably, if there’s an Oscar nomination to be had (and there surely must be), it is Anne Hathaway’s Fantine, a short but splashy part that soaks up the most emotionally wrought moments of the film. Les Misérables is at its best when she’s on screen, which is unfortunate since she dies so early. After that, Les Misérables never quite regains its footing. Is it Hathaway’s performance? The character Fantine? The music written for her character? Regardless, Hathaway sells the destitute prostitute making enormous sacrifices for her child; you believe she’s the real deal, despite the singing.
That’s never quite true of the rest of the movie, which feels as big and bombastic as musicals usually do. Hathaway’s “I Dreamed A Dream” is the film’s most breathless number; like several, it is filmed primarily in one take, but it’s the only one that truly warrants the stand-back-and-let-it-happen directorial approach. It’s a shame it isn’t climax of the film, because in a way, it’s all downhill from here. (Though, to be fair, that’s a pretty high peak to go down from.)
In addition to Hathaway, there’s another couple of performers who steal this show, and neither of them are the big name movie stars who’ve been advertised as the stars of the movie. They are Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, who play Marius and Eponine, respectively. I suppose it’s fitting that Marius and Eponine steal the spotlight, because is there any version of this story that has you feeling more for Marius and Cosette than you do for Eponine? We’re supposed to wish he’d run off with Eponine, or else what’s the point of a lovely little heart-tugging ditty like “On My Own”? Amanda Seyfried’s Cosette has virtually nothing to do for the entire movie; and, minor quibble, but is this blonde girl really supposed to be Anne Hathaway’s daughter? Samantha Barks look more the part, and she and Eddie Redmayne have way more chemistry. (Though we don’t hear enough of Seyfried’s singing to say whether or not she could carry “On My Own.”)
As with most Broadway adaptations, Hooper nails a few numbers and seriously botches some others. Most of the early songs are adequately staged, but as the film goes on, Hooper seems less and less confident in his stripped down, grimy Les Misérables, and instead keeps trying to make the movie bigger than it needs to be. We don’t need quite so many CGI backdrops of 19th century France, do we? Those expensive, sweeping CG creations are at odds with the long takes and live singing that’s supposed to make this Les Misérables feel raw and dirt poor like many of its characters. A more impressive feat would’ve been to make Les Misérables actually look like it was shot on a budget — or at least save the money for the battle scenes, where it matters.
Instead, we get a lot of static numbers with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman sitting or standing, possibly staring forlornly at a fake Notre Dame — there’s not a lot of Chicago-style razzle-dazzle here. But several of these numbers exist solely to reveal character motivations that are necessary in theater, but can be explained much more economically in cinema. Do we really need “Suddenly,” the song that informs us that Jean Valjean is instantly smitten with his newly adopted daughter Cosette? Nope! It could have been achieved in one five second shot of him smiling down at her in that carriage — no singing necessary. And while Russell Crowe isn’t necessarily a bad singer, he’s also not such a strong one that he needs multiple solo numbers. Broadway purists might have cried foul at cutting numbers like “Suddenly,” “Stars,” and “Javert’s Suicide” (spoiler alert!), but since Hooper doesn’t do anything innovative or exciting with them cinematically, they only serve as padding that make Les Misérables at least a half an hour too long.
Hooper also seriously botches “A Heart Full Of Love,” the moment that’s supposed to sell the burning love between Marius and Cosette. He films it entirely in one-shots, where we hardly see Marius and Cosette in the same shot at all. Is this because of scheduling conflicts? Were Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne simply unable to film this scene together, or was this just a terrible choice on the director’s part? Regardless, it does their romance no favors to not even see them in the frame together — it’s a love story that’s already stretching credibility, mind you, given that they fall in “love at first sight,” then spend the rest of the movie head over heels for a total stranger. (This was apparently popular centuries ago; but it’s getting harder and harder to buy these days.) Hooper also occasionally displays a desire to film from a wildly askew angle or leave a character dwarfed in the frame with entirely too much head room; these choices feel random, as if he was drawing his shot compositions out of a hat.
Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide suitable comic relief, as they’re meant to do; it’s hard not to feel like we’ve accidentally wandered into Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd for a moment, but the sassy “Master Of The House” has always felt a little at odds with the earnestness of the rest of Les Misérables. And then there’s “On My Own,” arguably the musical’s most memorable number, the one Hooper really needs to get right if Les Misérables is to be a success.
And…? It’s okay. As with The Phantom Of The Opera‘s “Music Of The Night” (misdirected by Joel Schumacher), Hooper takes a minimalist approach, trusting the power of the music. Mistake. Hooper drizzles a little rain on Samantha Barks and otherwise just leaves her be, which might work if Anne Hathaway hadn’t already brought the house down in her own one-take wonder with “I Dreamed A Dream.” “On My Own” needed a different approach… a little more pizzazz. Maybe not a chorus line of dancing girls, but something.
Strangely enough, some of the most theatrical moments are the ones that work best on the big screen. The solos are hit or miss (Hathaway hits; Crowe misses), but when Marius and his revolutionary buddies are on screen, Les Misérables comes fully to life. These songs (like “Red And Black”) are pure musical theater, not the audience-friendly numbers you expect moviegoers to hum coming out of the theater; but the male ensemble led by Redmayne and Aaron Tveit becomes the beating heart of this film, at least once Fantine is gone. The film asks us to care more about Jean Valjean and Cosette and Javert, none of whom have much to do with this revolution, but we wish to spend more time with these youngsters instead — because when all is said and done, isn’t their angle of the story what truly matters, in a historical sense? Who cares about Valjean and that police guy, anyway?
Eponine makes a mark with her fairly limited screen time, but if a little more attention had been given to these younger characters (yes, even Cosette), and less to Valjean and Javert, Les Misérables might have achieved the power and profundity it so desperately aims for. As such, it’s too bad that we can only care so much whether or not these revolutionaries actually achieve anything, because before we know it, we’re back to Jean Valjean, who really should take a backseat in the second half of this story. (I know, I know, now I’m rewriting Victor Hugo.) And no, I don’t mean that they should have added new musical numbers for these characters or anything. A bit of stray dialogue here or there, or even unspoken moments, could have gone a long way to give us a little more. As is, there’s a lot of story for these folks crammed into very little screen time. Eponine’s entire character arc comes over, what, about a half an hour? In Broadway, this can work; movies need to be a little cagier, a little more clever.
There’s a very clear divide between the performers who can pull off both film and theater in this movie, and those who can’t quite make it work. Hathaway and Redmayne are both capable of holding the screen with the combined power of their singing and acting alone, as evidenced by “I Dreamed A Dream” and “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” both dynamic minimalist numbers. Barks and Tveit score, too. But most of the rest of the cast is not quite up to that lofty task, yet there are far too many moments in which we’re asked to watch them do nothing but sing. The third act is interminable, thanks to the source material’s plotting but also Hooper’s inability to take shortcuts around some of the less cinematic numbers. I don’t want to rag on Crowe, who is serviceable when not saddled with the film’s dullest musical moments, or Jackman, a good performer and singer who has perhaps just been handed a role that needed a little extra oomph to work in a movie. (The conflict between Valjean and Javert, for all its screen time, is pretty simple — thief steals, policeman punishes. It might work better if Javert were truly despicable; instead, the dynamic between them is pretty tepid.)
Then Hathaway shows up again, as a ghost, at the bitter end, and again steers the movie right from the instant she graces the screen. Am I overpraising her, or is it just a fact that nearly all the best moments are hers? At least Hooper sticks the landing with a truly moving finale.
I suppose all directors are terrified of alienating fans of the original musicals on which these films are based, but wouldn’t it be nice if one of them actually took risks with the source material and created something purely cinematic out of it? For all its star power and budget, Les Misérables ends up feeling awfully stagey, rarely using all the cinematic tricks at its disposal. Tom Hooper just won an Academy Award a couple years back for The King’s Speech, which yanked the appropriate prizes from David Fincher and The Social Network, I think; there’s always a chance he’ll pull off a similar victory this year, but I think reaction to Les Misérables is mixed enough that another contender will come away with these prizes.
In the Supporting Actress category, though? Watch out for Anne Hathaway. That sick and dirty singing hooker is about to snag herself an Oscar.