It has been a long journey to the screen for the blockbuster 80s musical ‘Les Misérables’, but in the wake of his Oscar success with ‘The King’s Speech’ (2010), the task of finally rendering the musical cinematic fell to director Tom Hooper. With a tremendously exciting cast and a classic piece of source material (both Victor Hugo’s original novel and the acclaimed score by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer), anticipation has been high, and Universal have decided to throw the film in the ring during the highly competitive holiday season. There is a lot of faith and expectation going with this one.
After serving nearly twenty years for a minor theft, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) skips on his parole and tries to carve a new life for himself in post-revolutionary France. When one of the workers at his factory, a young woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is cast into the gutter, Valjean promises to find and care for her daughter Cosette. Hot on Valjean’s heels, however, is Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), determined to find the fugitive and bring him to justice. Their chase across the decades leads them into the thick of a building revolution, and another decisive moment in France’s political history.
Even with its excellent source material and incredibly talented cast, ‘Les Misérables’ turns out to be an absolute mess. The technicalities of its execution are a sight to be seen in just how inept they are. The cinematography is wild and unfocused (literally, in many cases), shot with a never-ceasing hand-held, and at times, bad digital quality. With the camera in constant motion, there is a frenetic instability to the visual world of the film. There is also a weird tendency to never show two people on camera in a duet at the same time, so that, often, it feels like characters aren’t even in communication with each other. Even worse is the editing, some of the worst I’ve seen in a very long time. It seems as if the edit is set to cut every three seconds, with the film literally leaping from shot to shot without any time to sit and let us take the image in. There are so many possibilities for beautiful images, what with the landscape and the production design the film has to work with, but we are denied this at almost every turn. Yet perhaps the most upsetting element of the film is the sound mixing. ‘Les Misérables’ is significant in that all the performances by the cast were recorded live on set, lending them a sense of reality and passion you rarely see in a film musical. It’s a brilliant idea, and one that could have worked wonders, but for some reason, the actual score itself is mixed so low that, at times, you can barely hear it at all, and the actors appear to be singing to no accompaniment whatsoever. Because of this, their singing feels lacking and, at times, badly out of time. What is worse, when it comes to big hit songs, the orchestra suddenly becomes audible, meaning it is possible the lulls in the score was intentional. Regardless, it is so distracting that it almost destroys a number of performances, especially Russell Crowe, who sounds disconnected without the music to back him up.
SWITCH: LES MISÉRABLES - AUSTRALIAN PREMIERE RED CARPET
If it were one major element that didn’t work, it could be excused as the fault of the head of that department, but the filmmaking in ‘Les Misérables’ is so inept, it can only be the fault of Tom Hooper as a director. It is clear he has no idea how to make a film of this scale or style, and fumbles his way through the material. The performances may be fine, but the rhythm of the film is uneven and ill-managed, the rules of its handling of the music are warped and inconsistent, and for a musical with so much heart and resonance, the end result is cold and dull. These are the responsibilities of the director, and it is clear that Tom Hooper is not the man for the job. Pointing a camera at brilliant actors with excellent material and pressing record may have earned him an Oscar for ‘The King’s Speech’, but here, his ineptitude as a director cannot give this mighty piece the attention it requires.
Thankfully, the film is saved by its performances. Hugh Jackman is an inspired and passionate Valjean, and he hits every note with strong emotional resonance. If it were not for the appalling sound, Russell Crowe may have fared just as well, but he lacks the vocal punch of his cast, and the music isn’t there to help him. Also of note are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardier’s, the innkeeper couple from whom Valjean saves the infant Cosette (played beautifully by Isabelle Allen). Their comedy is at times distracting and causes many emotional moments to land flat. Eddie Redmayne continues to show his talent as the young revolutionary Marius, who falls in love with the grown-up Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried. However, even with her brief screen time, the film belongs to Anne Hathaway, who gives one of her finest performances to date as Fantine. Her performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is an absolute knockout, raw and ugly and deeply affecting. Thankfully, Hooper makes a rare inspired decision, and has her perform the song in a single take, entirely in close-up, maintaining the depth of her achievement. Expect award recognition for this performance, maybe even finally her overdue Oscar.
Even with its excellent source material and incredibly talented cast, ‘Les Misérables’ turns out to be an absolute mess.
There is so much that is left wanting with this film. Where there should have been something brilliant, instead there is something dull and lifeless, and ‘Les Misérables’ remains a shadow of the film it might have been in better hands. The final few minutes almost save the film from remaining passionless, but by then, the damage is done. The source material suggests we should have an emotional, sweeping epic on our hands, but in his search for gritty realism, Tom Hooper has made the film anything but. It was a great idea, and could have worked, but in the end, what we have is something that looks more akin to a bad BBC period drama. This is a gravely missed opportunity.