“Do you hear the people see?
They’re seeing the film that’s Oscar bait?
It is the film made to please people
’Though it’s only good, not great!”
Few films in recent memory have screamed Oscar-bait more than Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables. When an Academy Award-winning filmmaker takes one of the world’s most beloved musicals based on one of the most powerful novels ever written and casts it with cream-of-the-crop performers, including a former Oscar host, an Oscar-winning actor and two Oscar-nominated actresses, how could it fail come February?
Well, with surprising ease, apparently. It takes quite a talent to so thoroughly slaughter this golden egg-laying musical goose, but Hooper has found a way. A masterful director of actors (check out The Damned United) who has been remarkably lucky with his script choices, never more so than for his multi-award-winning film The King’s Speech, Hooper has never been accused of having outstanding visual flair. Here, that lack of flair is downright unimaginative, and results in a lazily produced and bloated film that never manages to engage the eyes, even as it haunts and delights the ears.
Hooper’s misdirection has not been enough to block out the power of Victor Hugo’s story, or the arresting music and lyrics of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980 musical, and Les Mis retains a certain magic.
Tony Award-winning musical performer and Wolverine Hugh Jackman stars as Jean Valjean, a beleaguered Frenchman in post-Napoleonic France, starving and unable to find work due to his status as an ex-con; he has just served 19 years for stealing a single loaf of bread. Daring to start a new life, he breaks parole and creates a new identity for himself, within years becoming a successful factory owner and mayor of a provincial town. Valjean’s past catches up with him in the form of Javert (Russell Crowe), the foreman of his former chain gang, now a high-ranking police inspector who views Valjean as the one who got away, and someone whom the law must punish once more.
Valjean’s life on the run from Javert is complicated by his adoption of Cosette, a sweet urchin whose prostitute mother (Anne Hathaway) was unable to take care of her. Years later, as revolution stirs once more in the streets of Paris, Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) finds herself besmitten with a young rebel named Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and is soon dragged with her father into the political tumult, pursued ravenously by Javert.
Hugo’s themes of persecution and faith echo wonderfully in the film’s finer songs. Anne Hathaway sobs her way through ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, her hair shorn and her cheeks bloodied, having just sold her locks, teeth and body. Jackman belts out “Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!” as he decides to take responsibility for his actions in order to save another man. Samantha Barks, the only professional singer in the main cast, brings a mournful elegance to ‘On My Own’. Hooper’s insistence on using single-take close-ups throughout many of the numbers show off his actors’ talents well, but they are anything but cinematic, more akin to watching the big screen at a pop concert than a Hollywood musical. The only properly choreographed performance is ‘Master of the House’, a jaunty, nasty song that feels out of place in the midst of so much real drama.
Because of this, the musical numbers have no energy, and you would be forgiven for wishing Gene Kelly would burst onto the screen and roar “Gotta dance!” If only. It is not until well into the third act that the medley ‘One Day More’ properly electrifies the film, followed swiftly by the show-stopping ‘Do You Hear the People Sing’; but it’s too little too late. As the rebels set up barricades in a Parisian cul-de-sac so fake it looks like Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, it’s hard to care anymore about the young lovers’ plight, let alone the attempted revolution. When the film reaches its apparent climax, there are still 20 minutes to go, although the overwhelming finale just about makes up for that drag.
Hooper’s decision to have the actors’ singing recorded live on set results in some very affecting performances that hammer the emotions through the songs; although this doesn’t always facilitate their hitting the right notes. Jackman makes a believable Valjean, but the boy from Oz rarely flexes the vocals (and not once the dance moves) that made him a Broadway darling. Russell Crowe, a rock ’n’ roll singer in his spare time, scoops his voice repeatedly to reach the notes required, but the effect is more Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! than Michael Crawford. Due as much to some of Hooper’s more incomprehensible directorial decisions as to the Gladiator star’s miscasting, Crowe only manages to capture a fragment of the obsessive, sadistic and homoerotic nature of Javert that Charles Laughton mastered in the role nearly 80 years ago.
And fragments are all this film is; pieces of a glorious story, with moments of fine acting and superb songs brought low by excessive Dutch tilts and face-hugging close-ups. Not since Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc have expensive sets been this lost, buried out of focus, behind the faces of a film’s stars.
Yet it’s still hard not to recommend Les Mis, on some level. The story is timeless and the music resplendent, and Jackman and particularly Hathaway deserve to have their performances seen and heard. The un-cinematic quality of Hooper’s interpretation may yet lead to it finding a more respecting audience on the small screen, where the careless photography and in-your-face close-ups can cause less offence.
It could be worse. It could be Nine.
(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)