As an ardent fan of the musical stage play Les Misérables and its vibrant songs, I had high hopes for this elaborate screen adaptation. I’m sorry to report that I came away disappointed. It would take a lot to completely spoil the material, but I never felt the surge of emotion that the play engenders. In fact, I think the movie, for all its pomp and production values, offers a diminished experience. I realize that most moviegoers won’t be comparing the two presentations, but after 25 years of international stage success I don’t think I’m out of line. In the theater one doesn’t need to see hundreds of soldiers with bayonets or a literal construction of the barricades to feel their impact. The movie has all of that and more, but director Tom Hooper doesn’t subscribe to the “less is more” school of thought. This movie offers more of more, and I didn’t care for it..
Victor Hugo’s story is unimpeachable, but there is still room for interpretation. Hugh Jackman’s Jean Valjean is adequate, but his emotional journey is more told than felt. The more serious problem is Russell Crowe as his adversary. It has nothing to do with his singing voice; Javert is supposed to be unyielding, almost inhuman (think of Charles Laughton in the 1935 Hollywood movie). Here, he is merely stiff.
Everyone tries his or her best, and some succeed more than others. Sacha Baron Cohen is amusing as M. Thenardier, but Hooper is so insistent on showing us closeups and cutaways of his pickpocketing and such in the lively “Master of the House” number that we never get a sense of the setting. Where’s the establishing shot? (Helena Bonham Carter, as the equally larcenous Madame Thenardier, has played this kind of role a few times too often, I fear, and doesn’t have the vocal chops to put over her part of the song.)
On the other hand, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of the beautiful “I Dreamed a Dream” is shot in one long, continuous, ultra-closeup, and I’m not sure that’s a good choice, either. Do we have to see an actress’ tears, and tonsils, to experience her pain? I never felt cheated when I watched this number onstage.
The show has one other great advantage over the movie: an intermission. Not only does it provide a much-needed break (something today’s filmmakers should seriously consider) but it gives the show an opportunity to stage a stirring first-act finale with the anthem “One Day More.” The movie uses cinematic means to show us how each major character is preparing for the next chapter of the story, but offers no release. We must remain seated as the movie goes on. And on.
As for the much-vaunted, overhyped process of having the actors perform their songs “live” on camera, I can only respond by saying, “big deal.” There’s nothing wrong with the process, but did you feel cheated when Gene Kelly warbled “Singin’ in the Rain” or Julie Andrews sang “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the conventional movie way? Me neither. (For a devastating response to this puffery by bona fide theater people, click HERE.
There are some moving scenes, and some of the songs are well realized. I was particularly impressed with Eddie Redmayne, whose acting and singing as Marius is, for me, the highlight of the film.
But I’m discouraged that yet another Broadway/West End musical hit has been somewhat trampled, lost in translation from stage to screen. I never would have imagined Chicago without its bawdy humor or Sweeney Todd without a knockout rendition of “The Worst Pies in London.” Yet that’s what is cemented in cinema history as representative of those memorable musical plays. It’s our loss.