In the first reel or so of Les Miserables, we may be reminded that we don’t often see something like this at the movies these days — big, lavish, epic, period musicals, the kind with ornate and expensive sets. Sadly, we’re still not seeing something like that; the musicals of old used to take time to drink in the set decoration (hey, a lot of money went into it, might as well point a camera at it), but Les Miserables, under the shaky direction of Tom Hooper, gives us a few perfunctory backdrops and then takes the camera right up into the actors’ faces. Hooper is going for a more intimate rendition of the beloved stage musical, and this works only up to a point, that point being when Anne Hathaway is on the screen. Beyond that point, it’s Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe or various other guys belting right in our faces, and it’s sort of assaultive, emphasizing the sausage-fest that this material (as adapted for song, anyway) always was.
As Fantine, musical theater’s favorite emo chick, Hathaway blows away whatever else is supposed to be going on. She’s out of the movie quickly, but she haunts the rest of it (though her absence is sorely felt). Hathaway’s Fantine is in a different movie about how 19th-century France grinds women down, makes a mockery of their dreams and denies them even the slimmest dignity. Hooper’s only wise choice here is to move in close for Fantine’s show-stopper “I Dreamed a Dream” and let Hathaway’s undiluted anguish burn the screen down. This segment of the film, right down to Hathaway’s shorn hair, is a tribute not to stagecraft but to the legendary Maria Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc; it’s no easy burden to bear comparison to cinema’s greatest acting work, but Hathaway shoulders it. Between this and The Dark Knight Rises (another big Occupy-flavored epic she walked away with) and the recent, hilarious Funny or Die “sad-off” she did with Samuel L. Jackson, Hathaway’s had quite the year. Les Miserables — or its first half hour, anyway — is worth sitting through just to see the performance that’s probably going to send Hathaway home with the gold next year.
The rest of this thing is a rather slack battle of wills between ex-con turned mayor Jean Valjean (Jackman) and his adversary, rigid Inspector Javert (Crowe). It’s supposed to be Valjean’s story, how he redeems himself by raising Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) in safety while dodging Javert and joining in the June Rebellion. But after a while we’re following some colorless rebels, including the drippy Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls in love with Cosette at first sight, breaking the heart of poor Eponine (Samantha Barks), who loves him. Far too much of our time is taken up by this weak triangle, and I came to resent that Samantha Barks has more singing time than Anne Hathaway or even Amanda Seyfried; Barks has a fine voice, but she can’t act the songs the way Hathaway or Seyfried do. In any event, the women in this story are only there for the men to protect or mourn or long for.
I pity newcomers to Les Miz, who haven’t seen the musical on stage and might not know (because the movie doesn’t bend over backward to establish it) that Eponine and the bold young Gavroche (destined to be shot by a French soldier) are the children of the scroungy innkeepers the Thenardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, providing welcome comic relief, though their presence turns their scenes into what seem to be Sweeney Todd outtakes). If the Thenardiers have any emotional response to the deaths of their children, we’re not briefed on it. The few action scenes are loud and incoherently staged, and that includes the sword-and-song duel between Valjean and Javert. Tom Hooper might be the worst living director who has previously won an Oscar for directing (The King’s Speech); when he isn’t jamming the camera in his cast’s nostrils, or letting the corner of a building block Samantha Barks’ face for half her dialogue in a scene, he’s making us queasy with handheld shots or, on a few occasions, framing someone off to the side with way too much head room. Hooper’s artsy pomp made me wish for the relatively straightforward pomp and clarity of old Hollywood musicals.
Jackman suffers and endures heroically, and performs with passion, though as the role is conceived he can’t bring any spark or wit to it. Essentially, Valjean is a wind-up good guy. Crowe is, as always, an imposing presence, and he hits the notes, but it seems as though hitting the notes takes all his energy, with none left over for the moral shading Javert probably should have. With mostly cardboard male characters (really, they’ve got one thing they want — freedom or justice), this Les Miz needed the spirit of wronged and seething femaleness to drive it, but once Fantine gives up the ghost so does the movie. I have no doubt that Les Miz is a powerhouse on the stage, but it hasn’t been configured in a way that makes it explode as a movie. Despite the face-invader camerawork, the material feels as remote from us as if we were sitting in the nosebleed seats. It will probably delight worshipers of the musical, but I can’t see it converting any agnostics.Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, drama, musical