Near the end of Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables (or at least I assume it was near the end as I lost all track of time after a while, like I was in the world’s most depressing casino), Enjolras and his gang of wannabe revolutionaries whack Russell Crowe’s Javert in the head with his own police baton. But instead of seeing Crowe take the blow, it’s a point-of-view shot, and the audience is struck by the baton. While I had realized long before this shot that I was being beaten and bruised by the film, I at least appreciated Hooper for having the courtesy to actually represent my bludgeoning on screen.
That might’ve come off as overly harsh — in fact, it is overly harsh — but Hooper’s filming of the 1985 musical is harsh. He wants you to feel everything and all of the time, and he’s damn well going to make sure that you do by filming the bulk of the movie in close-ups and (barely) medium shots with the actors to the right in the frame (I don’t know why) when the camera isn’t just veering around wildly unhinged. You’re going to see Hugh Jackman’s veins, Anne Hathaway’s snot, and Eddie Redmayne freckles, and these things, along with the live singing (did you know they sang when they shot the film instead of recording it in a studio and then lipsyncing later? If you didn’t, then contact Universal’s PR department and they will tell you all about it!), are there to work you over, to give you no escape.
And that’s sort of my biggest problem with the movie. It’s not whether or not the voices fit the demands of the song, though it’s certainly a problem sometimes (Jackman and Samantha Barks as Éponine are the best in the cast, Crowe’s the worst, and everyone else falls somewhere in between for me), it’s that I could feel the movie working me, to try and get me to a place of emotional catharsis, and it just made all of it feel even more artificial than the copious amounts of CGI.
Take that long single take of Hathway singing “I Dreamed a Dream.” It’s pretty damn gut-wrenching, and Hathway is doing everything in her power to not only make the song her own but to make it feel incredibly raw (to “not do the pretty version” as she’s said interviews). It’s a different take on the song, for sure, and I generally liked it since it was in keeping with the movie’s spoken-word/sing-song-y delivery of a lot of the songs, but both Hooper and Hathaway make sure you feel every single emotion possible due to the staging (sans the staging, I think the rendition of the song works). We’re staring at Hathway’s awkward pixie cut and dirt and tears for minutes and if it doesn’t stir something, even momentarily, then the weird close-up experiment that Hooper’s working here pretty much fails. And it does. Yes, during the song, it was sort of hard not to get caught up on it at first, but then I started noticing that Hathway’s ears looked sort of fuzzy, and that, really, they were blending into that oh-so-purposefully non-descript background, and the moment sort of got lost for me. I’m being forced to stare at her singing for minutes, and eventually my mind and eyes are going to wander.
To be fair, the musical encourages this sort of reach for all the big emotions. It’s not the most subtle collection of songs, and as much as I enjoy that sort of big and bombastic approach to songwriting and storytelling, something gets lost in the transition from stage to screen. Jackman may suffer the worst from this since Jean Valjean is a role just waiting to be salted or glazed with honey and served at Christmas, and it’s “Valjean’s Soliloquy” (so early!) that seals that deal. Jackman goes so big, so much unfocused emotion, that the song gets lost. He’s so serious about getting across Valjean’s crisis of self that he ends up overselling it. Those impulses might work on stage, to get across emotions to the very back of the room, when everyone’s in stadium seating with Sony digital projectors and sound, scaling it back is a good idea.
When there’s not a big moment though, no one thing to latch onto, Hooper gets way too restless. “Master of the House,” the one fun, joyful song in the entire show, is a chaotic mess of store windows strung together to match the lyrics. Which is how it’s supposed to work, yes. We watch the Thénardiers rob and cheat and steal on stage, but it’s a lot easier to stage those bit of business as a unified whole on stage it would appear than to do it here. Similarly restless camerawork and cutting undermine both “At the End of the Day” and the mirrored revolution-tinted reprise of “Look Down.” Both start off strong but become choppy and rhythmless clutter by the end, as if Hooper isn’t sure that to do if a song involves more than two performers in the shot.
But all of this needs to be couched in my reception. I discussed my response to the movie with a co-worker the next day, and she pointed out that I would probably have a more critical approach to the film than others, which is sometimes the case (she also asked if I liked musicals, and that is also a fair question). When you have something like Les Misérables, which is the double whammy of big melodrama and big musical, sometimes you just need it to wash over you to really “work,” to surrender to the out-sized emotions, which did not occur for me while watching the film (save for when I started mouthing along with “One Day More” but that’s a gimme, right?).
I can say occurred after I saw on stage in London in 2005 (and with a slightly obstructed view, no less). Having seen it on stage, and being familiar with the 10th anniversary concert version, may have influenced my reception as well. My mother, who had zero knowledge of musical prior to this, really enjoyed the film and found it very moving (half the audience we saw it with was crying/sniffling by the end), and a friend of mine told me that I was “absolutely lying about everything but Russell Crowe’s singing.” I don’t think always going in “blind” will benefit someone, nor do I think being familiar with the stage production will predispose you against it, but certainly either position will likely influence the reception a good deal.
- Kelli Marshall has a nice post on the film as well (she liked it about as much as I did), and she gives a bit more attention to the actual singing than I do here (and is way more critical than I am).
- Erika Johnson-Lewis has also chimed in, and she had a similar reaction to the film as I did. But she also has neat gifs to express her dismay. I should start doing that.
- Who thought it was okay for Sacha Baron Cohen to use that ridiculous French accent in a cast of non-French people playing French people who aren’t even attempting French accents?
- That crunch of Javert hitting the barriers in the water was probably a little more pronounced than it should have been.