‘Les Miserables’ Review


Film Pulse Score

Release Date: December 25th, 2012
Director: Tom Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Film Pulse Score: 7.5/10

Movie musicals have always been a tricky business.  To be successful, the production has to fully commit to an absolute tone. Do you stage it with tongue firmly in cheek or go with full-on sincerity?

In the one-hundred or so years that Hollywood filmmaking has existed, most movie musicals have been done by having the singing done beforehand, recorded in a studio and white-washed to sheer perfection to etch away any vocal blemishes.  This forced the needle on musicals to lean toward the “tongue in cheek” variety, as it was hard to seem completely sincere while trying to lip sync to music you’d recorded several months before and still act like you meant it.

So when Tom Hooper, the director of the cinematic adaptation of Les Miserables, announced that he would be adopting the practice of having the actors sing live while filming – something that hasn’t been done since the 1930s – it raised eyebrows and piqued curiosities.

It was a bold decision, one that would undoubtedly garner interest in the film from a marketing standpoint, but was a complete wild card in terms of artistic merit.  If the actors sing live, there’s no chance to hide their vocal shortcomings or rub out any glitches or bad moments.  On the other hand, it should allow for more natural, raw emotional performances from everyone.  Whether the experiment (and film) was successful or not depends solely on whether the good outweighed the bad.

And luckily, for Les Mis, at least, there’s more good than bad – although the divide is not as wide as I’d have liked.

Regardless of what one thinks of the storyline of Les Miserables, the harsh truth is simple – the success of the film rides on how well the actors perform their songs.  In the musical, almost the entire script is sung, so there’s no taking any shortcuts.

I won’t rehash plot-points here, and will instead focus on the film-making in general, for it is how this film is made that sets it apart.

First, the good:

Hugh Jackman commands the screen as Jean Valjean, and he does it like I’ve never seen him do before. I knew of his background in stage, and the fact that he could sing is not news to me.  But to me, it was his overall performance as an actor that really struck me.  I seriously never realized just how good of an actor he is, but this is his master work.  He embodies Valjean with so much genuine, raw emotion, able to convey sadness, rage, love, humiliation and indignation on the turn of a phrase.  His best moments are “Valjean’s Soliloquy” near the beginning – which is the best version of that sequence I’ve ever seen – and the moments at the very end. Just about everything in between, however, is almost as good.  This is the performance of the year for me, and although I know everyone is looking at Daniel Day-Lewis as the frontrunner for the Oscar, for me, it’s Jackman.  There were multiple moments where I was completely dumbfounded by his performance.

Just as good (if not, somehow, better) was Anne Hathaway’s Fantine.  There was a lot of pre-release hype surrounding her performance, and she meets every mark. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is real, earthy and heart-rendering.  The song is normally an emotional moment, anyway, but Hathaway brought something new and intimate to it that I’d not seen in previous productions I had seen. She is simply spell-binding, and it is clear why she’s considered the front-runner for Best Supporting Actress.

I also have to add kudos for Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine).  Barks’ command of the material is not surprising, considering she originally played the role on the London stage, but the camera really seems to like her, and her effortless grace during “On My Own” is breath-taking.

Redmayne, however, was a complete surprise to me. I’ve only seen him in a couple of smaller projects, so to learn that he could not only pull off such a role, but sing as well as he does completely caught me off-guard.  The Marius character is – for the most part – a bit thankless, but it does put a face on the French revolutionaries and gives Cosette (a completely average Amanda Seyfried) a reason for being.  Marius’s big moment, though, is the classic “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” which is by far my favorite song ever written for a musical. Needless to say, I was anxious, but also skeptical that he could pull it off.  But pull it off, he does…and it is in moments like this where the ‘live singing’ experiment really pays off.  While Redmayne doesn’t have the soaring voice of stage-Marius Michael Ball, the sheer pain and emotion he portrays during this song nearly had me doubled over in tears.  It’s incredibly sincere, and you can almost feel his heart break as he sings a last dirge of remembrance to his fallen friends.

Less successful in their performances are the aforementioned Seyfried (as Cosette), whose voice, while sweet, has a superficial quality to it, and Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, whose takes on the Thenardiers are a bit subdued for my taste.  Compared to the stage versions I’ve seen, “Master of the House” was almost soporific.  Cohen definitely fares better than Carter, though, and I really would like to see him use the reputation he’s building (first with Sweeney Todd and now here) and really do something with it.

The only true casting failure is Russell Crowe as Javert.  Crowe is a decent singer, but he is a rock-smith, not a balladeer, and his voice doesn’t have the strength or timbre to carry much of Javert’s tunes, especially “Stars,” which is usually a musical highlight.  After seeing the film, I honestly believe Crowe was cast simply for name value, and think the entire production would have been improved by casting a lesser known actor in the role.

Aside from the occasional questionable casting choice, the biggest problems with Les Miserables lie with director Tom Hooper.  He seems to be in love with the claustrophobic close-up, as if he saw that the style worked for one particular number so well that he was determined to use it for all of them.  Les Mis is a BIG production, and there were many moments when the songs being sung should have felt bigger – more epic – but were sabotaged by a close-set camera shot or a glance lingering too long.

The pacing and editing is also somewhat of a mess. While there are a few incredibly good camera tricks (including a day-night transition using the cross atop a church as its epicenter), it’s clear to me that Hooper just doesn’t know how to direct something like this.  He seems to lack the ability to let shots breathe, and the only times he gets away from that, he seems obsessed with using a camera swoop (especially during Crowe’s solos, as if to compensate for Javert’s lack of movement).

Les Miserables, in the end, is a movie that floats about on its performances.  It is, like a lot of musicals, a film of moments.  When it hits these moments, the film is sheer perfection.  The problem, though, is that there are simply not enough of these moments for me to fall in love with it.  I liked it. I loved parts of it, but overall, it’s a good film that could have been great with some different choices.

2 Responses to “‘Les Miserables’ Review”

  1. I saw this with trepidation since Les Miserables was the first — and to date — the only musical I have seen on the stage when it was touring in the early 1990s after its Broadway premiere several years before. I was captivated by the story and songs and immediately bought the soundtrack. Sadly, this film as directed by Hooper was an enormous disappointment. I’m glad Daniel reviewed this because I would have ripped the film apart. The actors don’t seem to realize — most of them not being from the world of musical theater — that you act with your voice instead of acting and then trying to fit the song to fit your emotional range. This is most apparent during Anne Hathaway’s hard-to-listen-to rendering of “I Dreamed a Dream” because someone forgot to tell little Annie that when she cries and becomes emotional, her singing voice (like anyone else’s) cannot compensate and so in key phrases she’s off-key. But then again, so are most of the actors who, as Daniel points out, are singing “live” rather than to a playback; I think that was a big mistake. We can hear their imperfections, and as a musician/singer myself, those imperfections were grating on my nerves. I didn’t see one performance to “sing” about with the only person who comes close to getting it right is Samantha Barks as Eponine (because she’s actually a musical theater actress who’s performed the part on stage and in concert). Hooper, who’s only previous feature as a director was his Oscar-winning helming of THE KING’S SPEECH, is out of his depth (and I was in the Fincher camp that year believing that while SPEECH could have been the Best Picture of the year, David Fincher was the Best Director for THE SOCIAL NETWORK). I think they are all out of their league (again, with the Barks exception) and it was a mess that I prayed would end. “Miserable” indeed.

    • Different strokes, I guess 🙂 As an actor, I was more interested in the performances than the singing, though it being a musical (one I happen to love), I understood the need for stirring renditions of the songs. After seeing this and speaking about it afterwards with others in the theatre community, I was surprised to find that most agree with my assessments of the performances – the less than “perfect” voices actually added to the versimilitude of the film’s world building. Hathaway, Jackman and Redmayne all came from musical theatre backgrounds, and there were things she did with “I Dreamed a Dream” that I truly believe were completely intentional to help add depth and resonance to a song that desperately needs it. Don’t get me wrong, I love the stage musical, but there were several times during the film where I believed the emotions more than anytime I’d ever heard the songs sung on stage.

      One thing you say I COMPLETELY agree with: Hooper was the film’s worst link – I saw the movie again over the weekend and most of the problems I had with it vanished as I let it wash over me as an experience, but Hooper’s obsession with close-ups and swooping cameras still annoyed me.

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