There is a lot of buzz about the live singing on the set Les Misérables. All of the actors sang as the cameras rolled rather than recording in a studio first, and that’s a great accomplishment since many of the actors have wonderful singing voices and don’t exactly need autotuning. This live singing in combination with the film’s grand scope – finally, a film of the legendary Boublil/Schönberg musical! – is supposed to make this a great film. But, very sadly, it does not. While the film is filled with a lot of great talent and certainly is watchable, it buckles under the often mind-blowingly heavy-handed direction by Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and never becomes the epic piece of cinema that it so clearly set out to be.
The story is fairly common knowledge (and quite involved), but Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is finishing up his prison sentence for breaking into a house and stealing a loaf of bread. He thinks he is free, but because of being on a stringent parole at the hand of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) he cannot get employment after his sentence is over. Valjean vows to make another go of it and when we find him years later, he is living under an assumed identity as the mayor of a small town.
Valjean pays his good fortune forward when he helps factory worker-come-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway). After Fantine’s death, he bails her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) out of an abusive boarding house run by Thénardier and his wife (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
Cosette eventually grows up (and becomes Amanda Seyfried) and she falls in love with French Revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). But can Valjean learn to let go of his little girl, especially when they are still constantly under siege by lawman Javert?
The main issue here is that Hooper ultimately did a very poor job of directing. The film is shot in a staggering series of close-ups with little purpose — an odd choice, given the amount of the film budget that likely went to costumes and sets. The close-ups drastically shrink the potentially large scope of the film. It’s as if Hooper went to see The Expendables and took notes on how to make it look like someone left the TV on the “zoom” setting.
Hooper’s mistakes don’t end there, however. There are many clichéd shots of people singing off balconies à la Evita. There is even one shot that goes to the heavy-handed lengths of Javert singing off a rooftop next to a giant stone eagle. Get the symbolism?
The sets and costumes are also extremely inconsistent, running the gamut from highly stylized to “gritty” and realistic. For instance, the sets of historical French landmarks like Notre Dame look like the real thing and the majority of the principle actors look fairly authentically dressed. However, the prostitutes and the Thénardiers look like they stepped out of a Tim Burton movie, the poor people are so hideous that they look like zombies on The Walking Dead, and some of the village sets look like they were taken off the stage of the Broadway show in that they are extremely artificial-looking. Because of the unevenness, the look and feel of the film never quite gels, especially when Hooper resorts to his frequent use of an obvious green screen.
Of course, Hooper’s frequent missteps cannot obscure the amazing music that is featured in the film, and most of the actors do a tremendous job at performing, both in action and in song. Jackman and Crowe are fine as the warring Valjean and Javert and, for one example, they bring it in “The Confrontation.” Much has been said against Crowe’s singing voice not being up to snuff, but he is actually quite effective since he acts the hell out of the songs and his voice never sounds forced or inauthentic. Even though he’s been on Broadway in real life, Jackman could take a few pointers from Crowe – he warbles a bit too much and butchers classics like “Bring Him Home.”
With a few exceptions, the rest of the cast also delivers. Hathaway is a standout as Fantine and squeezes the maximum amount of emotive power from her limited time on screen. Seyfried and Redmayne work quite well as the vanilla young lovers Cosette and Marius, and their singing voices are more-than Broadway caliber. Though the real stars here are Samantha Barks (Eponine), Aaron Tveit (Enjolras), and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche). Barks and Huttlestone starred in the recent London production of Les Misérables, and Tveit starred in the recent Broadway production of Catch Me If You Can. Their French Revolutionaries breathe much-needed life into the film’s third act, and their voices capture an impassioned take on the material.
On the other end of the spectrum, Sacha Baron Cohen is the only actor in the film who made the odd choice to intermittently alternate between the Thénardier-traditional cockney and a French accent. Hooper probably should have reined that one in.
Les Misérables is certainly a great musical, but it would have been interesting to see what a different director would have done with the material. At about two and a half hours, the film feels even longer, even though a lot of the songs were cut out and the plot would likely be hazy for people not overly familiar with the book or the stage musical. There was a lot of anticipation behind the release of this film, and it’s likely that many people will still like it and shell out the cash to see it in theaters, but it mainly reads as a big missed opportunity to be something great.
The Upside: The majority of the cast really delivers, especially the stage-based newcomers Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks.
The Downside: Tom Hooper’s direction is unbelievably heavy-handed and his insistence on using so many close-ups is almost baffling.
On the Side: Paul Rudd and David Wain do a humdinger of a job at singing “The Confrontation.” Drink it in here.