An opportunity to put right everything that is wrong with the stage show is sadly wasted by a director desperately out of his depth.
Les Miserables is a terrible musical. On stage its adoring fans and millions in box office sales shade what is an incredibly well marketed dud. A dreary, claustrophobic war of attrition it has only 4 decent songs and continues in a sea of depression for well over 3 hours. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes, everyone rails about how wonderful it is while nobody dares to admit that actually it bores them silly and lacks any character development in favour of emotionally manipulative song.
The film posed an opportunity. Les Mis suffers on stage from its restrictions, it is hard to deliver a sense of scope on stage and as a result it has always been a problem that the barricades look little more than bin collection day and revolutionary France is reduced to a few square foot and a bloody big red flag. Tom Hooper was given a chance when he was handed the reigns to the film adaptation, and he wastes it. He wastes every opportunity he has to tidy up the narrative, scale up the vast expanses of the setting and to bring a better blend of light and dark to the overall atmosphere.
Les Mis has four properly good songs. Two at the start, one near the middle and one at the end. These are the key to a successful interpretation and here they are executed well. Following the prologue at the dry docks (more of that later) At The End of the Day brings us into the heart of Paris and sets the scene of what is to come. Mr. Scrooge from The Muppet’s Christmas Carol clearly took its inspiration from this song, Tom Hooper takes his inspiration in turn from that film. His ragtag band of poor Parisians are muppet like in their mugging to the camera; it is a surprise when singing mice do not appear. From here we are thrown into the story of Fantine, Anne Hathaway, a woman working in a factory to support her daughter, is fired and then descends into prostitution, sells her hair and teeth and then sings the heartbreaking I Dreamed a Dream. Hathaway is by far and away the strongest performer here, her performance is raw and her singing, aided by Hooper’s decision to record the sound live on set, is breathtaking. Then she dies.
The problem with Les Mis is that from here until the last 30 minutes, not a lot happens. Our lead character Jean Valjean is introduced in the only shots to really embrace the scope, in the opening dry dock scene, he is serving the end of a 19 year sentence for stealing bread and enters the world with a warning from Gendarme Javert, Russell Crowe, that he will pursue him throughout his life waiting for him to slip up. And so it is. The film from Fantine’s death follows Valjean, now the owner of the factory and Mayor after some fortune with a benevolent priest, as he runs from the law, tries to hide his identity and to protect and raise Cosette, Fantine’s daughter. Scene follows scene, each one another song about the same thing, descending further into misery and soul-searching with no sense of progression, resolution or relief.
Relief is supposed to come from the comic scenes led by Thenadier at his inn. Played by Sacha Baron Cohen with Helena Bonham Carter as his wife, the scenes in the inn are supposed to offer a jovial break from the destitution around, but instead Hooper manages to squeeze all of the nastiness out of these sequences to make sure that any hope of light relief is kept in regimental check.
Backing all of the misery and heartache above is the growing revolution in France, by far and away the group of students forming together for a better future and to overthrow their oppressors is a much more exciting story than the seesaw relationship between Valjean and Javert but it is given cursory moments to build to a revolution that when it appears has earned no respect or context with its audience. The revolutionaries are fighting against something, but we never really know why or what for, other than we are probably on their side. Here comes another problem, with a film’s budget and scale it would be possible to increase the size of the battles to make them more engaging and visceral. Instead Hooper stays with a small-scale set which lacks any real ambition.
So on to the performances. Let’s get the good out-of-the-way first, Hathaway dazzles, Eddie Redmayne as Marius is excellent, Aaron Tveit as Enjolras is a quiet force, their vocal talents are some of the best on display and they makes the most of the little screen time they are given. Samantha Barks performs well as Eponine, her role shrunk to that of bit part, her song On My Own lacks emotional intensity as we have been given no access to her back story.
The bad; Russell Crowe has taken a lot of flack for his singing ability and although he is not the world’s greatest tenor, he can carry a tune, especially in the role of the vocally undemanding Javert. It is Hugh Jackman who has been saved from criticism by Crowe, Jackman owes Crowe a large number of pints for this. Jackman is a star of musical theatre, he used the Broadway stage as a springboard to Hollywood and as such it is unfathomable as to why his voice is so lacking here, so reedy. He can ably hold his own in the vocal battles with Crowe but his Bring Him Home is weak, feeble and lacking in any depth of emotion.
The film comes to life in its final moments, too late. As Can You Hear the People Sing? starts to resonate we finally see that Tom Hooper is able to offer size, scale and cinematic adventure, but why has he waited? The scale we find in the closing moments was needed from the beginning. We also find that it is possible for him to frame a close-up on the left hand side of the frame, before he reverts to the right where 95% of his close-ups are. His shot selection is woefully inept and shows just how lost he is as a director.
Film offered Les Miserables a chance to become the epic it has always considered itself to be, it offered a chance to tighten up the sprawling narrative and the tranches of nothingness that clog the middle of the score, unfortunately by choosing Hooper the producers have chosen a man who without the frankly astonishing success of The King’s Speech should be making Sunday tea-time dramas.
One more day? One long bore.
Favourite quote about Les Mis: Libby, Aged 10, Liverpool, “It’s like ‘Glee’ for poor French people, and everybody dies”
- Les Miserables, according to the critics (rappler.com)
- Calling All ‘Les Misérables’ Fans: Let’s Get Geeky About Screen vs. Stage (hollywood.com)
- Russell Crowe’s Epic Fail in “Les Misérables” (themoderatevoice.com)
- Les Miserables: Tom Hooper Has Killed The Dream I Dreamed (thepasswordisswordfish.com)
- Why I walked out of Les Miserables (telegraph.co.uk)