There are few musicals that can claim to have the same kind of cultural resonance as Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel of pain and suffering set just before the French Revolution in 1815 that literally translated means misery in no uncertain terms. It’s not the kind of feel good song and dance showstopper that audiences normally gravitate towards, but producer Cameron Mackintosh’s gamble hot on the heels of his success with more genteel fare like Cats and My Fair Lady more than paid off as the show became the second highest grossing musical in history and it won 8 of the 12 Tony awards it was nominated for in 1987.
Produced by Mackintosh and acting more of a straightforward porting of Schönberg and Boublil’s work than has ever been previously attempted in the cinematic realm, this year’s big screen adaptation of Les Misérables seems like an interesting gambit on its own, and one that pays off quite nicely overall thanks to excellent music recorded live on set to give a sense of grittiness to the material, well crafted performances, and an actual theatrical feel, despite director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) often finding himself in way over his head when it comes to pulling this film off on a technical level.
Prisoner 24601, a.k.a. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), has been released from prison after a length incarceration for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s dying child. On the inside, his life was made a living hell in labour camps by the duty borne Javert (Russell Crowe), but after reinventing himself, Valjean begins living a secret life as a respected business man. His cover gets blown, however, after his foreman fires a helpless woman (Anne Hathaway) who then has to resort to prostitution to help save her sick and dying child. Vlajean makes a pledge to raise the child as his own, making his identity known to Javert in the process forcing him and his now older ward, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), into a lifetime on the run and in seclusion.
One thing that becomes apparent from the outset is that the theatrical background of Tom Hooper never fully translates to the big screen, and what this production desperately needed was a director of photography that could have stood up to him a bit more in terms of editorial and framing decisions. On a stage, everyone can see action all at once around them, but Hooper in a somewhat misguided but not altogether irrational decision designed to preserve the almost verite nature of the often single camera handheld intimacy of the production shoots as if everything were a still photograph. Any one shot of Les Misérables would look just fine on its own in an art gallery without motion or context, but in a vibrant musical with as fast a pace as this one it becomes sometimes overwhelmingly distracting.
To describe more adequately what I’m trying to get at, picture your computer screen as a movie screen and just pretend that this review is something really interesting that you want to read. Now shrink the size of the window to about a quarter of the size and place it in one corner of the screen. Then get rid of all the shortcuts on your desktop and your wallpaper entirely and just leave it blank. Then try reading what it was you wanted to read. Your eye will immediately revert to looking at the blank background in most cases, and you’ll get distracted because you know that behind this review there used to be something else, but now there’s nothing and you can’t for the life of you figure out why you are looking at it in the first place. Besides that fact that movies done almost entirely in steadicam are next to impossible to edit perfectly, you’ll wonder why during certain numbers in the film that the glorious sets aren’t put to full use. It can be chalked up to a brutalist aesthetic, but it’s the wrong choice overall for a musical of any kind. It’s the one gamble here that pays off the least dividends.
The rest of the film’s set up proves to be incredibly solid, however, and for all his faults Hooper does know how to use actors to the best of his ability. Jackman breaks out of the more showy musical roles on Broadway to make his Valjean a broken and conflicted man who keeps a calm head and his own paranoia about being discovered buried deep for the sake of those around him. He has the voice and presence needed for the role, but he also fully understands that theatre and film are not the same, adjusting accordingly so he’s not always playing to the cheap seats.
On the other side of the law, Crowe’s Javert might prove to be a bit of a craw in the sides of some viewers because he’s not the greatest singer in the world. Despite being the frontman for a band in real life, Crowe wisely uses more of his acting muscles here. As someone who adheres so closely to the book that he’s become emotionally and morally stunted, his voice is one that shouldn’t ever convey joy. Crowe does this quite well, giving Javert a real “take it or leave it attitude” that give the film the biggest dose of realism it gets.
The justifiably lauded performance by Anne Hathaway, however, comes hinged to almost a single heartfelt rendition of the musical’s iconic “I Dreamed a Dream,” but the sequence comes marred by Hooper’s decision to shoot largely around Hathaway for large portions rather than closing in on her or even bothering to put her in the centre of a frame unless she’s expressly moving through it. It’s a massive testament to her acting abilities that she still steals the first half of the film away from her higher billed counterparts despite Hooper kind of doing wrong by her.
If anything the second half of the film, which bombastically sets up the barricades for a showdown between the oppressed French commoners and the military, gets saved by an old face from a theatrical staging of the musical and oddly enough by Hooper finally settling into a bit of a groove and getting things more right than wrong.
The young idealist Marius (Eddie Redmayne, who gets the part if not necessarily having the voice to sell it) falls for the now older Cosette. Not only did Valjean have to duck Javert and a pair of pimps-slash-swindlers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter doing decent work as comedic relief), but now he’s being thrust back into the fight for what it right by virtue of it being at his doorstep. Marius’ affections towards Cosette come at the dismay of the young Eponine, played by British cast member Samantha Barks.
Despite having her role be the one most dramatically changed between the musical and the film seemingly due to time constraints, Barks gets arguably the biggest emotional number of the second half and she nails it nicely. It’s a nice mirror image to Hathaway’s somewhat similar performance if she’s given considerably less to work with in this adaptation. It’s a nice little supporting role that helps give the more action oriented half of the film some nice dramatic weight.
Hooper also effectively ramps things up quite nicely for the climactic finale. He’s still not the greatest visual stylist, but he handles frenetic action far better once the battles and fights begin to take centre stage. He’s a director built for motion – hence his decision to shoot handheld a lot in the first place – and this half of the film doesn’t give him a chance to really rest on quiet moments that he tends to overthing. The finale of Les Misérables is more like what the film should have been the entire time, meaning it’s pretty great, but it had the potential to be outstanding. Nonetheless, it’s certainly no slouch in the entertainment department.