There’s a great meta moment early in Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the ’80s Broadway musical Les Misérables, based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 French novel. After 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape his sentence, convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled, but starving, because no one will hire or help a known criminal. Then a bishop at a rural church takes him in and shows him profound kindness, getting him back on his feet and imbuing him with a moral code that profoundly shapes the rest of his life. The bishop is played by Colm Wilkinson, who originated the Jean Valjean role on Broadway, and played him for more than 15 years, including on both the original London cast album and the original Broadway cast album. The scene between them—where the older man surrenders the most valuable things he owns to give the younger one a fresh start in life—is highly symbolic, a generous, respectful passing of the musical torch. But in spite of this clever bit of theater, Les Misérables the movie is unlikely to supplant the long-running stage show in the minds of anyone who’s seen both. While not a disgrace to Wilkinson’s good name, Hooper’s film is critically flawed in a variety of ways.
The story follows Valjean beginning with his prisoner days, when he’s watched over by the morally uncompromising Javert (Russell Crowe), who believes once a criminal, always a criminal. When Valjean decides to break his parole and assume a new identity, he becomes a wealthy, successful man, but Javert remains on his trail, distracting him at a moment that proves critical for Valjean’s workshop employee Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Later, Valjean adopts Fantine’s young daughter Cosette after dealing with her ruthless innkeeper caretakers, the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) and moves with her to Paris. Years later, all these players meet again, amid the tumult of a student uprising led by the hot-blooded Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). Enjolras’ friend Marius (Eddie Redmayne) falls for the grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks) pines for Marius, and a great deal of angst and anger is expressed through song on the way to a series of bloody confrontations.
There’s a great deal of grandeur and emotional sweep to all this painful emotion, and Hooper’s greatest failure in directing it is an intermittent unwillingness to trust the raw power of the material or his richly appointed setting. Content with steadier, soberer camera work in The Damned United and The King’s Speech (which won him a Best Director Oscar), he repeatedly chops Les Misérables’ setpieces into disorienting fragments seen from a crazed variety of angles. It’s most irritating on “At The End Of The Day,” an early ensemble number meant to establish the desperate circumstances of the poor, and the apathy or outright malice of the wealthy. Hooper stages the first half of the song in a corridor full of ragged, filthy peasants, but cuts rapidly around his staging seemingly at random, abandoning the song’s meter and zooming through a variety of angles and POVs, jumping in on faces and then away, never establishing a rhythm or a sense of space. It isn’t dazzling, just distracting and visually confusing. On other songs, his camera swoops and soars over the performers with giddy, show-offy abandon. But for some of the musical’s signature numbers, the evocative weepies that most often get pulled out for performances and auditions, he zooms in uncomfortably close and leaves the camera to sit still and intimately explore the singers’ faces, always positioned on the right of the screen for some reason. It would be an effective tactic, if he didn’t repeat the same idiosyncratic move over and over.
Hooper has gotten a lot of publicity for his tactic of live singing, letting his cast act their way through scenes at their own pace, songs and all, then later adding an orchestra timed to their recorded performances. It’s a daring experimental tactic that pays off with some performances and becomes embarrassing with others. Crowe looks like he’s concentrating hard to make it through Javert’s two character-defining numbers with dignity, and he never makes the musical numbers work for his role. He delivers them forcefully at an unseen audience, like he’s performing in concert onstage rather than expressing an integral part of his character’s being, and his limited voice doesn’t help. Jackman is a fine singer and performer, but shades into drawn-out hamminess in a role that’s already sometimes parodically bombastic. And he too often falls into recitative as he tries to push emotions past the song, instead of bringing them into the song.
But for others, the method pays off brilliantly. Barks, a longtime Éponine stage vet making her film debut, brings across her character handsomely and with just the right air of sweet, sad, resigned longing. Seyfried is appropriately syrupy as Cosette, and Redmayne (the male ingénue of My Week With Marilyn, playing a similarly doe-eyed naïf with just a bit more spine here) works with both of them extremely well, with a perfect blend of bravado and vulnerability. Theater vet Tveit plays Enjolras with passion and clarity, in particular turning the second-act number “Red And Black” from an expository tool into a war of ideals in which he repeatedly wins over his less-committed brethren. Given that all this talent is concentrated in the second act, when the story focuses less on Valjean and Javert, the film does build in strength and focus through the second half, though Redmayne makes more of a climax out of “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” than Hooper does with the stirring reprise of the final number.
But for better and worse, the film belongs to Hathaway, who sobs her way through the now-standard “I Dreamed A Dream” almost entirely in a single mesmerizing take that’s guaranteed to get her attention when Oscar season rolls around. Her raw, gasping version does the song’s beauty no favors, but her emotion is so unprotected, so wrenching and desperate, that it feels like the crew filming her was holding its collective breath the entire time, aware they were seeing something authentic, and afraid to break the spell. The sequence has a naked ugliness that nothing else in the film can match, but while it doesn’t fully integrate, it sets a high bar for performance that the film only periodically reaches again.
The problem is that so little about Hooper’s Les Misérables feels integrated. The cast feels like a grab bag of talented stage vets and garish stunt-casting choices, particularly Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter, who perform the fan-favorite comic number “Master Of The House” as a jerky, staccato series of show-off moves and attempted but inadequate scene-stealing. (The worst choice in the entire film is Baron Cohen inexplicably adopting an exaggerated French accent, even though the story takes place in France and no one else has an accent, let alone an erratic, silly comic one.) They both resemble Eddie Izzard in Across The Universe, flailing without respect for the music or comedic timing. Meanwhile, Jackman is performing in a drama, Crowe on his concert stage, and Hathaway alone in her room. It’s a collection of performances rather than a story.
All of which raises the question of whether Hooper’s live-singing method went too far in letting the actors make their own choices at the film’s expense, or whether Hooper was focusing so much on making each number into a definitive experience that he lost track of the big picture. Interviews with Hooper and the cast have emphasized the method’s freedom and spontaneity, but freedom in the moment clearly isn’t the most important factor in building a consistent world. What Hooper wound up with isn’t definitive or coherent, but at least it has some elegant and memorable high points, and a new opportunity to work on its own merit with every new segment. As with the old saw about the weather, viewers who don’t like it only need to wait; they’ll get something new and different within a few minutes.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Les Misérables’ Spoiler Space.