Editor’s Note: Les Misérables opens on Christmas day
In response to the already polarizing critical reaction to Les Misérables, allow me to discuss my own polarized reaction. Tom Hooper’s follow-up to Oscar winner The King’s Speech is ambitious—far more ambitious than his anointed 2010 entry—and this is both its success and its failure. The result is an ambivalent experience that wants simultaneously to be intimate and grandiose; the music often reaches extraordinary crescendos, yet the camera rarely pulls wide enough to show more than the singer’s head and shoulders. Odder still, it’s not as though one particular stylistic effort works better than the other: both the intimate scenes and the epic scenes have their peaks and valleys. Sequences filmed in hyper close-up work if the intimacy is intense but become myopic and boring if the tone of the song stays stagnant. Epic sequences only pop up when Hooper can’t work around it, and though opening the music to the full scope of the narrative is a welcome change of pace, Hooper’s interpretation of the material doesn’t jibe with expansive staging and choreography. It’s like he wants to be a revolutionary but still clings to tradition, and neither discipline is fully functional.
The film works best when it focuses on a handful of characters and allows the audiences to know them intimately, which seems to be Hooper’s primary milieu, given his focus on tight close-ups throughout the film. He wants the individual characters to be in the audience’s face, presumably to let the intensity of the emotion brush right up against the screen. That works great in sequences focused on individual characters, such as Jean Valjean’s “What Have I Done”, the impassioned vow to create a new life that sets the story on its course, or in Fantine’s gut-wrenching “I Dreamed a Dream”, which has become the film’s primary advertising anthem. These are the moments that wind Hooper’s clock, scenes where solitary characters cry out in soul-bearing song, driven by the intensity of their emotions and unencumbered by virtually any other cinematic elements. Such a strategy is a stylistic risk, but the reliance on performance allows the actors to truly pop in their designated “moments”, and their passion elevates the story’s most moving themes.
Sequences filmed in hyper close-up work if the intimacy is intense but become myopic and boring if the tone of the song stays stagnant. Epic sequences only pop up when Hooper can’t work around it, and though opening the music to the full scope of the narrative is a welcome change of pace, Hooper’s interpretation of the material doesn’t jibe with expansive staging and choreography.
Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, as Fantine, are the clearest beneficiaries of this style, since they carry the story’s most pronounced moments of narrative and musical synthesis with singular force. Any complexity that might have been exhibited by the remainder of the expansive cast is sacrificed for the sake of the ensemble, since the majority of Les Misérables is spread thin across the massive cast and sprawling setting, with complex emotions expressed only in limiting musical notes. The story, based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, spans multiple decades and touches dozens of individual characters in its tale of love and redemption amid societal uprising. Such an extensive marathon of a narrative makes sense in a novel, where the story and characters are allowed ample breathing room since pages can carry on to infinity (in Hugo’s case, the original French novel is 1900 pages). In the musical format, however expanded, it’s impossible not to truncate the material.
As a result, the complicated themes that run through Hugo’s original story are cut short to the point of near-illegitimacy. The film thrusts itself forward, often years at a time, jumping from one crucial scenario to the next almost entirely in verse, with nary the integration of traditional spoken dialogue, which might have provided a little structural and contextual support. Hard to blame the filmmakers for that, since they basically follow the map of the decades-old stage version; in terms of narrative and character complexity, the musical format may just simply be wrong for the Les Mis story. I can, however, blame the filmmakers for the inelegant flow of the material. Hooper simply maps the story from one expected showcase musical number to the next, creating an episodic feel that undercuts what should be a natural evolution of feeling. This halted unfolding of the story is especially troublesome for iconic young love triangle between Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and Eponine (Samantha Barks), which should pain our hearts but rather feels like a plot obligation. Seyfried especially—whose vocal ability is stunning—is treated as more an object than a character; it is, then, to her even greater credit that she stands out as a wondrous talent even in such a limiting role.
The film thrusts itself forward, often years at a time, jumping from one crucial scenario to the next almost entirely in verse, with nary the integration of traditional spoken dialogue, which might have provided a little structural and contextual support.
Really, the cast is uniformly excellent. Jackman and Hathaway are obvious standouts, but Redmayne and Barks are also great, since they are given the gift of strong standalone numbers amid the otherwise boondoggle that is the “June Rebellion” section of the film. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter inject some comic life to the otherwise dire circumstances, though their best comedic efforts still feel a little discordant with the rest of the film. Russell Crowe, as villainous Inspector Javert, is fine too, though he is a rock singer tackling songs intended for a more traditional vocal styling (in other words, not his fault).
Great as they are, however, the cast is really at the mercy of the material… and Hooper’s interpretation of it. The unfortunate truth is that the musical format, successful though it has been, severely abbreviates the intricacy of the story, and Hooper’s stylistic push-and-pull only hinders it further. Early sequences that showcase Valjean’s plight and Fantine’s tragic life work splendidly in close-up, but once the narrative expands and the characters pile up, we are never able to engage with the wider scope when Hooper seems hesitant to embrace it. This ambitious cinematic Les Misérables is impressive for its talented cast and is powerful in the beginning and the end. In the middle, however, it’s just a mass of singers, barely defined.
[notification type=”star”]61/100 ~ OKAY. Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a failure of its own design: the impressive cast is betrayed by a style and format that never fully engages it[/notification]