After walking away with all of the Oscars in 2011 for his incomprehensibly acclaimed breakthrough The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper decided to follow-up that rather simplistic film with an ambitious adaptation of the perennially popular musical Les Misérables. He assembled an A-list cast and intriguingly had them belt out the famous numbers live on set — which works for the most part — and the performances are impressive across the board, with Anne Hathaway in particular giving a phenomenal supporting turn. Unfortunately Hooper couldn’t get himself out of the way, lessening the emotional payoff of the story and performances with his relentlessly distracting and frequently ugly visual choices, although fans of the production will no doubt be thrilled to see these songs on the big screen regardless.
Adapted for the screen by William Nicholson from Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical production, which in turn is based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel, Les Misérables follows the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a peasant in 19th century France who unjustly served 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread. Following his release he breaks parole, attempting to turn his life around and become a pious man, but Valjean is forever antagonised by his former imprisoner. We are introduced to him — bearded and emaciated — as he and a chain gang struggle to pull a large ship ashore, singing ‘Look Down’ in the rain while their oppressive prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), glares from above. Valjean displays extraordinary strength as he hoists a ridiculously large pole onto his shoulder, not-so-subtly being set up as this story’s Christ figure. Hooper’s camera swoops in and crashes like the adjacent waves, whiplashing around the digitally-enhanced port to catch a close-up of each actor as they take their vocal turn. In an attempt to bring us closer to the characters than the stage ever could, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen decided to shoot the majority of the film with a combination of wide-angle lenses and hand-held camera work — which makes for an unpleasantly disorientating experience — and use an alarming number of close-ups, perhaps more than any film I have seen. This much should give you an inkling as to the overblown approach this adaptation takes, as each song — all sung loudly, with little to no dialogue in-between — follows the same maximalist set-up, which unfortunately undermines the terrific work of the performers. While some may defend any use of inventiveness in adapting a production like this to avoid a stagebound feel, I contend that the visual approach here is so counterintuitive to what the story required that it harms the film, and Joe Wright’s gorgeously stylised Anna Karenina is a much better example of how such a reinvention can be achieved.
The one exception to the film’s tiresome, repetitive pattern of bombastic song-after-song is Anne Hathaway’s lauded performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. Playing Fantine — an unfortunate, unwed mother who loses her factory job and is forced into prostitution — Hathaway’s brief turn is absolutely unforgettable, at once justifying the live vocal experiment and likely earning her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In one astonishing single take, the powerful scene manages to capture the overwhelming anguish and dying hope of her tragic character, sending chills up your spine as an alarmingly gaunt Hathaway sputters and growls her way through the devastating lyrics. Hooper thankfully manages to restrain himself here and this scene is the closest the film comes to a still shot, giving Hathaway her moment to shine and us a chance to take it in. You may wonder if all this talk of cinematography is completely necessary, but its importance cannot be overstated. The way a director and his/her cinematographer frames, lenses, lights and shoots a scene is paramount to influencing how the audience feels about what is happening on screen, and it should always in service to the story they are trying to tell. What Hooper does here is break the rules with no just cause; his interfering hands are constantly moving the camera at key moments when we should be feeling the emotion of a scene, such as Valjean’s turmoiled ‘What Have I Done’ early on. Jackman paces the hallway of the church that took him in, wracked with guilt over stealing from the benevolent bishop, but the camera needlessly paces with him and creates a jarring distraction from the great performance we should be invested in. Elsewhere, he overuses the close-up so much that it no longer conveys the intense emotions it should, exhausting the audience instead. The close-up is a filmmaker’s most powerful tool when it comes to capturing the emotion of a scene, but even an amateur ought to know that it should be used sparingly.
Despite Hooper’s misguided visual choices, there is still much to admire here. Jackman’s musical and theatrical talents make him an ideal Valjean, and his soulful performance is deeply affecting. An angelic Amanda Seyfriend (as Fantine’s daughter Cosette) and sincere Eddie Redmayne (as the revolutionary Marius) impress as a pair of would-be lovers, and Samantha Barks — pulled from the London production of Les Misérables — shows off her pipes as the lovelorn Éponine. And of course, anyone with even a passing knowledge of the musical could tell you that these songs are classics for a reason. The film’s sweeping scale and perpetual motion can be impressive and absorbing at times, particularly in the rousing finale. However, Hooper’s unwillingness to change the unrelenting pace or excise any material from its 50-song (one more than the production), 160-minute run-time proves utterly exhausting and often rather un-cinematic. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen show up midway through to provide comic relief, but they appear to have stepped off the set of Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and their silly scenes can feel out of place. Crowe cuts an imposing figure as the law-enforcing, compassionless Javert, but his performance suffers the most from the live recordings, often sounding flat and strained.
In a comparable fashion to Peter Jackson’s disappointing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Tom Hooper has largely failed this compelling story by refusing to simply get out of its way. As a first-timer to the musical, I lost count of how many times I would begin to get swept up in one of the great numbers before being yanked right out of it by the ridiculous, attention-grabbing cinematography (not to mention some haphazard editing and ugly CGI exteriors). That Les Misérables is watchable at all — let alone often impressive — despite these failings is a huge testament to the talent of the cast and the ongoing power of the story and these songs. Hooper admittedly has a talent for directing actors, as the great performances in The King’s Speech already proved, but I’m less convinced than ever that he actually knows how to direct a film. Les Misérables will likely be remembered for Hathaway’s galvanising performance and the live vocal recordings, but I sincerely hope that it ends up being shown in film classes as an example of how not to shoot a film.
Les Misérables is out now everywhere. Watch the trailer below.