Tom Hooper\'s Les Miserables is technically ambitious, often moving, but slightly disappointing, according to Filmink\'s Andrew Moraitis.
Like Richard Attenborough, Tom Hooper has followed Oscar success with a screen musical. Given the consistently high fail rate – both critically and commercially – of the genre, you must credit The King\'s Speech director for his ambition, especially when considering Les Misérables is also an epic: a brown-toned and bloated melodrama that’s not only an adaptation of a Tony-winning musical (by Alain Boublil, Claude- Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer), but also based on one of the finest novels of all time (by Victor Hugo). Hooper’s film doesn’t match the lofty expectations of such prestige; rather, his film is chiefly distinguished by Anne Hathaway’s poignant and raw performance as the tragic Fantine. She’s the engine of this film – emotionally – and interest levels drop when she departs.
Hugh Jackman plays Jean Valjean, an imprisoned peasant in 19th Century France. After he is released and treated with compassion by a bishop (an excellent Colm Wilkinson), Valjean resolves to better himself, eventually becoming mayor of his adopted town, Montreuil-sur-Mer. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), however, becomes suspicious of the local hero, and resolves to bring Prisoner 24601 to justice. Entrusted with the daughter of the prostitute Fantine (Hathaway), Valjean attempts to protect Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a teenager) from the dangers of the outside world, which is complicated by Cosette’s affection for Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a student protestor. (Sweeney Todd’s Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen also feature as the treacherous Thénardiers, Cosette’s abusive ‘caregivers’).
Practically and creatively, this is a much more ambitious project than The King’s Speech. It seems that his previous film’s success has given Hooper the verve (or is it merely the opportunity?) to indulge in more elaborate staging and stylistic excesses. The direction, too, is often high-reaching, if problematic. Hooper’s approach strikes a peculiar balance between uncomfortably-close intimacy (courtesy of extreme close-ups photographed with wide lenses) and David Lean-style epic. In the opening shot, for instance, Hooper establishes the material’s tone and concerns with efficiency and ambition: an underwater image of a sinking French flag ascends into a helicopter image (CGI?) of a storm-flooded prison dock, and then cranes down into a close up of Jean Valjean. The sheer level of craft (and expense) behind this image is staggering. However, there’s the frequent niggle that this is an example of scale for its own sake, as Hooper sidelines the needs of the characters for his own stylistic excesses, a concern that resurfaces in the director’s repetition of this visual idea: respective close ups of Valjean and Javert crane upwards to establish a time lapse in the narrative. Gone is the small-scale wit and visual energy of The Damned United, which has been replaced with a bloated style that sits uncomfortably between art and entertainment, like a latter Hugh Hudson film.
The film, however, is also let down by its empty-headed, lop-sided screenplay which mishandles the story’s central conflict in its later half. Whilst you admire the ambition of screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator), who attempts to juggle the emotional struggles of his characters with the broader study of social unrest, you can’t help but feel that many of the more interesting elements in the narrative (such as Valjean’s journey towards freedom) are sidelined, as a result. The consequence to this decision is that the personal elements feel under-serviced: Valjean becomes a supporting figure to Marius’ revolutionary concerns. The other relationships are superficially defined, too: Marius and Cosette fall in love at first sight, for instance, and their relationship barely develops beyond this initial spark. Whilst the first half of the film is full of incident and compelling – if a little thin – characterisations, the second half is slow-moving and under-dramatised, replacing the fairly plausible characterisations and set-ups of the first half with ambitious (but less interesting) set-pieces and some flimsy resolutions. The physical battleground – no matter how well staged – is not as compelling as the emotional journey of Valjean. In fairness to Nicholson, some of these problems are apparent in the source material. However, Hooper and Nicholson aren’t particularly intellectual or challenging filmmakers. So, the sudden turn from a raw, primal melodrama into a more socially conscious drama feels unearned in the film, as the script paints the social themes in the broadest of strokes.
The film’s technical achievements are unquestionable, however. Cinematographer Danny Cohen (This is England, John Adams, The King’s Speech) and his team execute Hooper’s lurid visual touches with proficiency and boldness, giving the material an idiosyncratic style: wide-angled expressionism meets handheld naturalism. The look is harsh and handheld (without reverting to Ken Loach-style ultra-realism), helping the filmmakers to overcome some of the visual clichés of the musical genre with a more personal approach. For instance, the wide-angled lenses – framed tightly in close ups and extreme close ups – give the Inspector Javert solo songs an interrogatory quality, suggesting his psychological torment with tight framing (in contrast to the tableau-framing of Javert in a more executive mode). Moreover, the subjective framing of Fantine’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ – tight, close, intimate, slightly unbalanced – accentuates the prostitute’s anguish with unobtrusive dexterity. This minimalism is further accentuated by Chris Dickens’ editing, which primarily depicts the song with a single take. Some of Dickens’ other choices are also very moving, such as a false point-of-view shot in Fantine’s rendition of ‘Come to Me’, a wonderful subjective choice which illustrates the character’s psychological descent into unreality.
Hooper is also excellent with actors, drawing raw performances from his lead actors, prodding them to delve into an intimate emotional space. It also helps that the songs are sung live on-set, allowing the performances to dictate the emotional arc of their songs on camera. This decision pays dividends in Hathaway’s performance of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, as she invests sadness, anger and heartbreak with both vocal clarity and extraordinary vocal investment. Vulnerable and affecting, Hathaway is riveting as Fantine, and it is all the pity that the story’s musical highpoint occurs in the first half of the film. Jackman is solid as Valjean: what the Australian actor lacks in true gravitas, he makes up for in appealing tenderness. Crowe is a little baffling as Javert, frankly. On the one hand, he brings a tenderness and anxiety uncommon in some of his recent performances, exuding a frightened and lost quality in his final scenes that’s quite moving. However, Crowe also displays precious little thought behind his sometimes inexpressive eyes, so that Javert remains a bit of a cipher in Crowe’s performance. (Honestly, you’re curious what British actor Paul Bettany, who auditioned for the role, might have made of the tormented Inspector). More impressive is the persuasive Redmayne in a less interesting role: whilst Crowe makes little of his thousand-yard-stares, Redmayne conveys a wit and intelligence to even the most vapid of soppy love songs, bringing confidence and personality to the underwhelming Marius. Carter and Cohen give a spirited and very funny rendition of ‘Master of the House’, but a little goes a long way with the Thénardiers, whoever is playing them.
Simultaneously impressive and frustrating, Hooper’s Les Misérables is calculated in its sentiment and broad in its approach. A technical marvel, the film sometimes loses sight of the human dimension amide the spectacle and visual brilliance.