It’s been hard to ignore the atmosphere, heavy with anticipation for Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables. It’s been a production that has been well-documented, heavily-marketed and as such, has ridden a wave of hype all the way to the box office. It is no doubt a cinematic event, however, despite the productions relationship with its significant cultural predecessors, it is still a film that should be judged on its own merits. This is something that was rarely considered, and we’ve been bombarded with marketing rubbish that already seeks to position the film as significant. The cast, heralded as the ‘dream cast’, is no such thing and makers a mockery of anyone who understands the filmmaking process. Less than impressive acting abilities, and more importantly, underwhelming musical performances blight the massive production which prompts viewers to question, could it have been better?
Now don’t get me wrong, despite the largely negative introduction, Les Misérables is a fine piece of work. However I cannot help feel that the film is swelled with self-importance, complacent and just a little bit arrogant, secure in the knowledge that its prestigious heritage will carry it through the box office and awards season with honour. Tom Hooper, who defied expectations and made an utterly fascinating and entertaining story about a King’s stutter is creatively paralysed in this production, intensely focused on recreating the musical experience that viewers are familiar with, rather than the cinematic experience the viewers deserve.
To clarify, it’s in the directing of the talent where Hooper and Les Misérables shines. It must have been a daunting task to balance emotion, motivation and song simultaneously but Hooper’s decision to record the vocals live is simply inspired. This method produces a most raw and emotive musical experience, as songs are shaped by quavering voices, torn by choked sobs or breathless excitement. This is buoyed by a first rate cast, and while I highly doubt they are ‘the dream cast’ lauded by the press, they are reliable and the performances are harrowing, powerful and combined with song, deliciously raw.
However, my original criticism still stands, while the actors may be a fantastic draw for the box office, their musical performances are a little uneven between characters, and inconsistent throughout the film, for all except Anne Hathaway. A brief disclaimer if I may, this author is hopelessly tone-deaf, but holy s**t even I recognise that Hathaway delivers one of the most awe-inspiring performances committed to screen. Even between critics, it’s Hathaway’s musical prowess that is consistently celebrated, and throughly deserving it is too. It’s great to witness Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean without his Wolverine claws (though that could have made a better movie) who turns in a surprising performance and reminds us all that actually he is a talented guy. Russell Crowe tries to keep up, possessing a narrow range compared to his co-stars, his blunt and forceful performance only matches and reflects the unwavering dedication to the law embodied by his character. It’s not a musical performance to remember him for.
The two lovers, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are both a little disappointing, especially after Seyfried’s turn in Mamma Mia! In my opinion both are upstaged by their lesser known colleagues, Aaron Tveit as Enjoiras, and Samantha Barks as Éponine, which just highlights how pedigree took precedent over talent.
However, while the music delights, the visuals are sadly underwhelming. Hooper, desperate to cling to the safety of the musical theatre, refuses to give the world of post-revolutionary France a large enough canvas. Some may argue that this is a highly personalised story and therefore the characters deserve centre stage, but the tight, almost claustrophobic framing and focus ultimately fails to place these wonderful characters within the larger context of their society, or see their woes as part of the grander historical tapestry creating more of a soap opera than the epic it should be. True, Hooper occasionally allows a sweeping shot over the Paris rooftops, and occasionally makes use of dramatic set-pieces such as the docking warship but these are just backgrounds to the characters. At no point does the setting become part of the story or a character in its own right, and for a region that experienced such turmoil and a dramatic cultural shift, it is imbued with character and substance that is sadly disregarded. Even at its most volatile locales, such as the barricade, the scenery feels flat and staged, merely a platform for the characters and the music. At the crucial moment of Gavroche’s death, the strange French-Cockney hybrid child played by Daniel Huttlestone, the camera awkwardly skitters across the floor, handheld and shaking wildly. This isn’t cinéma vérité, this doesn’t inject this poignant scene with a sense of realism, instead if feels like it’s once again confined to the stage as a cameraman scuttles about between the props. Why this lazy camerawork was employed at this point is a mystery, but certainly jarred me out of any emotional whirl I was experiencing.
One scene in which the world does come to life is during Master of the House, a fantastically rambunctious number performed by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen. However, it’s interesting to note that the song is designed as a diversionary piece, an ‘event’ that misdirects characters and audience members while the two Innkeepers perform all manner of petty thefts and comic sketches, when the song becomes merely a support for the action then the vivid and wonderful world of Les Misérables becomes infinitely more real and substantial. However, this is just a fleeting moment in the grand scheme of things, Hooper inevitably returns to showcasing the music first and everything else second.
So as the dust settles, Les Misérables occupies an ambiguous position for myself. I am in no doubt that fans of the musical will be delighted with this production, the familiar songs are all in place and delivered by some stunning performances will be heard in entirely new ways once again. However, I continue to attest that the Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is merely a screening of the theatrical production rather than a true cinematic adaptation. The camera, the ‘character’ that divides the theatre and the cinema is never given freedom to roam, leashed tightly to the performance of the moment which I must add, continue relentlessly. There is little breathing room for the audience, no moment of solitude to dwell, just a tirade of musical numbers, fantastic as they may be.
I would welcome your opinions on the film, and any comments you may have for or against this review. I’d also like some insight from fans of the story and how the film resonated with you. Leave them in the comments below, or catch us on Twitter.