MOVIE REVIEW | “Les Miserables” lives up to its title all too well

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Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of the hit musical Les Miserables opens on December 25, and boy, does it ever live up to its title. Unless your significant other is planning to unceremoniously dump you as soon as the gifts are opened, there’s no quicker way to come down off that holiday high than settling in for 160 minutes of being loudly whimpered to by an all-star cast. 

Hooper can’t be accused of not having a clear vision: his idea is both to use the freedom of film to expand the visual scope of the musical and to make the performances more intimate. Much has been made of the very unusual technique of having the actors sing live on set, rather than lip-syncing to prerecorded vocals while the camera rolls.

This approach could work. In fact, it does work—from the magnificent opening shot of a ship being dragged into dry dock right up through Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” As the desperate single mother Fantine, newly forced into prostitution, Hathaway sits up from being violated by her first client and, right there in the conjugal corral, performs the classic song with a tender delicacy that would be impossible on Broadway. Hooper films most of the song in a single shot, and it’s stunning.

As Cats fan George W. Bush might say, though, “Weep me once, shame on you. Weep me….can’t get wept again.” There are a lot of songs in this musical—it’s through-composed, like an opera—and Hooper’s approach varies little. For the confessional numbers, he brings the camera in as he did with Hathaway and lets us watch the actors’ eyes redden for the first couple of verses, then as the song rises to its climax, he cuts to a medium shot at a 45 degree angle (dynamic!) and finally gives us an ascending helicopter shot so that we can see the computer-assisted recreation of 19th century Paris.

Except we can’t actually see it very well. Much of the movie takes place at night or in the late afternoon, a portion of the day which in Restoration France seems to have begun shortly after the day’s first baguettes were broken. The characters are constantly moving through murky alleyways and dark taverns, and cinematographer Danny Cohen keeps us in darkness with them. When a dawn occasionally breaks, you want to grope forward in your seat like a prisoner reaching through the bars of the Bastille.

On stage, this material is very powerful, because the songs must be projected—so the performers’ resolve puts their characters’ inner conflicts into poignant contrast. In Hooper’s film, much of that poignancy and uncertainty is performed in whispering tones at close range, which becomes unbearably tedious by the time things finally wrap up.

No character suffers for this more than Inspector Javert, played here by Russell Crowe—a casting decision that would seem to be inspired. As he’s demonstrated in films such as Gladiator and Master and Commander, Crowe thrives in morally ambiguous historical dramas where his characters have doubts about raining hell on their opponents but go ahead and rain hell anyway. Here, though, Crowe suffers doubly: he probably doesn’t have the vocal chops for the role, but we never really find out whether he does because this Javert is so meekly introspective that Crowe’s diaphragm might never even have known it was involved in a major musical production. The only thing this Javert makes us afraid of is that he’ll be given another soliloquy. 

As Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman fares better—though that’s not saying much. He gets even more soliloquies, but he at least gets to change his hairstyle between them. He’s also at the center of the multi-character songs (for example, “One Day More”) that create a wall of sound on stage but create only a flurry of cuts onscreen as Hooper frantically tries to show us that several characters are all singing at the same time. Valjean! Marius! Javert! Cosette! Valjean! Marius! Javert! Cosette! Valjean! Marius! Javert! Cosette! The ensemble numbers start to feel like trailers for themselves. For all the commitment of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thénardiers, their big number “Master of the House” feels conversational rather than theatrical.

Nor do Hooper and screenwriter William Nicholson succeed at conveying a sense of what’s at stake politically. Les Miserables is never going to be Lincoln, but the fact that we can now see (via aerial shots) precisely how futile the barricaded rebels’ fight is makes it all the harder to understand exactly what the point is. We get that they’re fighting for “freedom,” but the scene where the rebels interrupt a parade is shot so confusingly and with so little urgency that you wouldn’t be surprised to see Al Roker show up with a microphone to start interviewing Marius about his new Christmas album. 

In the end, the fatal flaw of this Miserables is that, with its tender emoting and authentic milieu, it’s just too tasteful. Reviewing the stage production last year, I wrote that “On the dial from less Broadway to more Broadway, Les Miserables cranks the Broadway to 11 and doesn’t touch that dial for the next three hours.” You can take the musical off Broadway, but you can’t take the Broadway out of the musical. Well, actually…you can, but should you?

Read Jay Gabler’s 2011 review of the 25th anniversary stage production of Les Miserables.