To say that I was looking forward to seeing Les Miserable in the cinema is an understatement. An excitable theater geek, I knew that I would be blown away by Tom Hooper’s screen adaptation of this much-beloved musical, particularly with Hugh Jackman at the helm of the impressive cast.
Alas, I was not blown away. I did experience moments of (excruciating) empathy, but I was not transported somewhere magical, as I had hoped and anticipated.
This is a dis-jointed film. Yes, there are moments of brilliance – such as Anne Hathaway’s extraordinary rendition of ‘I Dreamed a Dream” – but in between those moments the narrative and the energy of the film lag. While the play moves seamlessly between scenes, the film is a clash of styles and locations – some of which are hyper-realistic and others like a theater set.
Disappointingly, Hooper’s overuse of close ups begins in scene one and continues for the next three hours. Yes, these characters are experiencing the worst of what people could possibly endure. But extreme closeups detach them from the horror; the context gets lost and so does the emotional impact. When Marius sings “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” – arguably Eddie Redmayne’s most impactful moment – we lose the sense that he is all alone in an empty room, because the camera is focused so tightly on his face.
Even the death of Gavroche loses impact because of photographic choices. What is so poignant about this moment is that he is a little boy. If the frame is too tight, we lose sight of how small he is in relation to that massive barricade. And the rousing rowdiness of “Master of the House” is lost to a series of close-ups and quick edits. Only the final scene comes close to capturing what is so brilliant about the ensemble work in Les Miserable – they finally get to be an ensemble.
It may seem that I would have preferred to see something more like a filming of the stage version. No. However, I did expect that the medium of film would have been used to elevate the material more effectively.
The cast was also a mish-mash of talents and singing abilities. Hugh Jackman brings something to Valjean I have never seen, with the inner demons doing battle in his eyes. And while I still maintain that close up is over-used in this film, Cohen (the D.O.P.) and Hooper capture Jackman’s beautifully-honed performance thoroughly. In contrast, Russel Crowe’s performance is weak and self-conscious. He swallows his words when he sings and his eyes are vacant. Some might argue that this is an acting choice, but one of his character’s defining moment’s, “Stars”, is bland and a throw-away performance.
Stand-outs, not surprisingly, included actors who come from the stage, Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, as well as the plucky Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche. Tveit, in particular, lends a weight to Enjolras that makes us believe his contemporaries would follow him into battle – and he has a divine singing voice. Redmayne and Seyfried, as the star-crossed lovers, shine most when they are not singing, “A Heart Full of Love” – Redmayne in “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” where his heartbreak at the loss of his friends is wholly believable, and Seyfried at the death of her father, Valjean.
Lastly, Anne Hathaway is sublime. I started teaching Drama in 1994 and since, I have sought out examples of actors connecting thoughts to their words. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” – a song I have heard dozens, if not hundreds of times – is a perfect example of excellence. It made me hear the song for the first time. Yes, I think that the scene was shot too closely. But that is not her fault.
On the whole I enjoyed seeing this film, but I expected to be breathless, speechless, and a weepy mess by the end. Alas, I was not.