Christmas Day saw two new openings of award-season contenders, “Les Miserables” and “Django Unchained.” (Both got off to a strong start; we will parse their box office on Thursday.) But judging from social media chatter as well as reviews, it is clear that Tom Hooper’s approach to the musical may be too radical for many moviegoers.
In holiday socializing over the past week, I got into countless debates with friends as well as Academy members over the ragged quality of the live singing, the claustrophobic effect of the close-ups, Hooper’s penchant for wide-angle lenses and the weakness of the film’s treatment of policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). I adore and applaud the movie.
But while Hooper and his collaborators put a great deal of careful thought into bringing the stage musical to the screen, clearly, it’s not for everyone. And while stellar reviews are not an Oscar necessity, “Les Miserables”‘ rash of naysayers suggest that the musical’s Academy chances are not as strong as some might have thought. Even “Crash” had better reviews (Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 69) than “Les Mis” RT: 72% , Metacritic: 64.
If the best director race is tight, Hooper may be vulnerable. And if voters don’t place “Les Mis” at number one or two on their ballots (due January 3), that could also be a problem. The film did not place on many critics’ ten-best lists. Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks are coming away with better reviews than Hooper. Schadenfreude may also play a role here. Hooper already won big for “The King’s Speech.”
Here’s a review round-up.
Richard Corliss, Time
The problem is that Hooper extends the ploy far beyond its usefulness to virtually every aria. In Valjean’s “Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” the camera strenuously backpedals as Jackman strides toward it. His voice goes fortissimo with the songs’ emotion, as if he needs to be heard by someone in the third balcony, yet he’s nose to nose with the viewer. So many of the numbers in Les Miz have the impact of a stranger shouting in your face. That might be forgivable if the screen were of YouTube size, but this is for movie theaters. (Worst news of the month: an Imax version is planned, meaning that the screen, the faces and the aural assault will be larger still.)
Ken Turan, Los Angeles Times
The people who put “Les Misérables” on screen dreamed a mighty dream, they really did. They dreamed of filming one of the most popular of modern theatrical musicals — 60 million tickets sold in 42 countries and 21 languages since its 1980 Paris debut — in a way that had not been done before, enhancing the emotion of what was already a hugely emotional piece. And, despite some built-in obstacles, they succeeded to a surprising extent.
Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
Shall I go on about all the ways in which this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines while millions of viewers who have softer, more generous hearts than I may swoon with money’s-worth contentment? (At least it doesn’t skimp on length: The movie is approximately as long as the 1832 Paris uprising it depicts.)
Scott Foundas, The Village Voice
On stage, Les Mis has about as much to do with Hugo as Rent has to do with Puccini, but it has undeniable kitsch appeal, with its own literal pièce de résistance—an enormous rotating barricade—in lieu of Phantom’s plummeting chandelier. On screen, there are fewer pleasures, though the opening moments are undeniably impressive in an old-fashioned, epic-monolithic way, as the camera drifts up from underwater to reveal Valjean and a chain gang of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into port under the crash of waves and the glower of the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe).
Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post
For better or worse, though, this adaptation of the mega-hit Broadway musical fits neither description, largely because it lives in that kinda-sorta, okay-not-great, this-worked-that-didn’t in-between for which words like “better” and “worse” fall woefully short.
Less a fully realized film than a strung-together series of set pieces, showstoppers, diva moments and production numbers, “Les Misérables” contains multitudes — not only in the form of a huge cast but in its own contradictions.
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
As he showed in “The King’s Speech” and in the television series “John Adams,” Mr. Hooper can be very good with actors. But his inability to leave any lily ungilded — to direct a scene without tilting or hurtling or throwing the camera around — is bludgeoning and deadly. By the grand finale, when tout le monde is waving the French tricolor in victory, you may instead be raising the white flag in exhausted defeat.
David Edelstein, New York Magazine
The tasteless bombardment that is Les Misérables would, under most circumstances, send audiences screaming from the theater, but the film is going to be a monster hit and award winner, and not entirely unjustly. After 30 or so of its 157 minutes, you build up a tolerance for those it’s-alive-alive-alive! close-ups and begin to admire the gumption—along with the novelty of being worked over by such a big, shameless Broadway musical without having to pay Broadway prices.
Claudia Puig, USA Today
Hooper (The King’s Speech) was a perfect match for the material, making exquisite use of a much bigger stage and impeccable production design for a wonderfully epic effect, juxtaposed with stirring tight close-ups.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
A gallery of stellar performers wages a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea and a laboriously repetitive visual approach in the big-screen version of the stage sensation Les Miserables… With Hooper’s undoubted encouragement, the eager thespians give it their all here, for better and for worse.
Justin Chang, Variety
Yet for all its expected highs, the adaptation has been managed with more gusto than grace; at the end of the day, this impassioned epic too often topples beneath the weight of its own grandiosity… The squalor and upheaval of early 19th-century France are conveyed with a vividness that would have made Victor Hugo proud, heightened by the raw, hungry intensity of the actors’ live oncamera vocals.
Ian Buckwalter, NPR
Part of the success of the performances in the film owes greatly to Hooper’s decision to record the actors singing on set, rather than have them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks, the usual method for filming musicals. The technique works exactly as intended: The actors, freed from having to match a vocal performance from weeks or months prior, are able to live in the moment. The impact on the emotional immediacy of the songs is striking.
Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
I dreamed a dream in time gone by, in time gone by so very…slowly.
Largely faithful to the stage version, Hooper’s Les Miz is an extravagant melodrama, at once openly ambitious and almost touchingly earnest… Hooper has taken the innovative step of having cast members sing their numbers live on film, rather than lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks. It’s a genuine breakthrough: As the performers lift their voices, the camera holds them in intimate closeup; the experience is about as close to live theater you’re likely to find onscreen.