Based on the smash musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel, the new film version of Les Misérables, directed by Tom Hooper, is nothing short of an epic miscalculation.
Hooper, who won an Oscar for the modest, madly over-praised The King’s Speech two years ago, is now operating under the delusion that he is no longer merely a film director but a visionary. He makes an ill-conceived choice to stage the story in its traditional “sung through” form, meaning the actors sing not only the songs but all of the dialogue, including the thoughts dancing in their heads.
And he compounds this ridiculous idea by shooting the actors singing live on the sets into wireless microphones, without the benefit of post-production lip synching or ADR (additional dialogue recording), resulting in a strained, conspicuously thin soundtrack. The technique is so ineffective that at the end of the movie’s very first scene my eyes were darting for the exits.
By the time the final credits mercifully rolled on Les Misérables two hours and 37 minutes later, the picture’s title no doubt referred to a majority of its audience.
The fact that Les Misérables arrives already freighted with a sweeping emotional appeal will enable many viewers to overlook the presentation on display here, maybe even embrace it as a daring artistic device. But this makes Hooper’s strategy even more galling.
Clearly afflicted with the undeserved hubris of a newly minted auteur, his approach is meant to be beside the point for lovers of the story, and a statement of creative ingenuity for those who may be more skeptical.
If we can’t stand having every word of narrative exposition sung to us by actors who have no talent for singing in the shower let alone in a 60-million dollar musical, then we are cultural knuckle-draggers, immune both to the beloved charms of Hugo’s classic text and the breathtaking experiment of Hooper’s “new cinema.” The attitude is both patronizing and arrogant.
Compounding the damage here is another tactic, and this one provides evidence of Hooper’s utter lack of the first key to admittance in the vaunted realm of the visionary: an eye. He stages nearly every scene in head-and-shoulder close-ups, broken by the occasional random wide shot, usually delivered by a rising crane that is cruelly snipped in mid-flight. One never gets the sense of a scene taking place in a defined space. People wander rooms and streets, singing to one another or to the gods, and they are guillotined into head shots. Musical numbers are cut and assembled like the tedious showstoppers in an episode of Glee.
Added to this is yet another disastrous choice to shoot nearly the entire picture with a handheld camera, no doubt applying, according to the director’s rationale, a patina of grain to the Parisian sets. But this phony documentary-like gravitas is at odds with the entirely theatrical conceit of the sung-through style.
While watching this fiasco, the wavering cameras thrust into faces wracked with the struggle to hit notes pitched too high and passions pitched too far toward melodrama, I was seized several times with a near frantic claustrophobia. When every second of the film is stuffed with people talk-singing at you, you stop listening.
The trouble doesn’t end there. Whoever had the idea to cast Russell Crowe as Javert should be outsourced immediately to the repertory staff of a penal colony. Not only can the poor man barely act anymore, he can’t sing, especially while attempting to act. The task immobilizes him.
A more agile performance is delivered by Hugh Jackman, who has the coordination to sing and emote and move all at once, but whose voice is tinny, strangled and often off-key. His Valjean is a moody, morose figure. Though he needs to bring little to the role to engage the diehards among the audience, the case could be made that Jackman brings way too much. He weeps, he sobs, he rips through his scenes like the flaky croissants they are, but in the end he comes across as sappy instead of moving, self-pitying as opposed to tragic.
Anne Hathaway fares better as Fantine. She arouses our compassion with admirable grit, but she disappears from the film all-too quickly in the condensed mini-opera that depicts her descent into prostitution.
The only characters that register are the young men, women and children of the barricades, the episode which takes up most of the final hour of the film. Not only can this cast of barely recognizable faces sing and act simultaneously, they breathe a bit of fire into the hard-to-resist clamor of revolutionary youth. But by this point, all hope is lost, and I don’t just mean for their cause. Viewers will feel defeated as well.
From the multiplex to the art house, from on-demand to on-line, from DVDs to digital downloads, Rainier Valley-based film critic Rustin Thompson – AKA The Restless Critic – conducts a restless search for films that rise above the norm of mediocrity. His reviews can be found here and on KBCS 91.3FM. See Les Miserables at Ark Lodge Cinemas (4816 Rainier Ave. S.) in Columbia City.