Les Misérables Is a Klutzy, Calculated Sobfest from Start to Finish


LES MISÉRABLES The eternal love story of a man and a loaf of bread.

Some have criticized director Tom Hooper's film adaptation of Les Misérables for its lack of subtlety, but to be fair, there's never been anything subtle about Les Miz. Distilled from Victor Hugo's sprawling 1,400-page novel into a syrupy liqueur of human sorrow, the Les Miz musical has always been a calculated sobfest from start to finish. This is a show in which nearly every member of the expansive cast dies, often violently, and usually at the point of abject despair.

You are going to cry, goddamnit, even if the ghosts of the dead have to come back for the finale and hand-massage your tear ducts. Which they do.

So if Hooper's Les Miz is obvious and manipulative (and it is), well, that's the material he's working with, and that's the film the musical's fans expect. I can't blame Hooper for that. He's only remaining faithful to the original.

But I do blame Hooper for failing to recognize the limits of a bold directorial gamble that succeeds in producing one of the most memorable cinematic moments of the year, while ultimately undermining the film as a whole.

Movie musicals typically record their sound tracks in a recording studio in advance, with actors later lip-synching their performances before the cameras. The goal is to produce the optimal vocal performance by piecing together various takes.

But looking for more natural and spontaneous performances, Hooper chose the opposite approach, recording the performers live on the set, with the orchestrations dubbed in later.

It's a gamble that pays off early and spectacularly. Anne Hathaway as the tortured Fantine—a single mother forced by crushing poverty into selling first her hair, then her teeth, and finally her body—gives a stunningly heart-wrenching rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" that is worthy of an Oscar and a Grammy all by itself. Filmed in a single take, the camera zooms in on Hathaway's gaunt face (the already svelte Hathaway reportedly lost 25 pounds to play the starving Fantine) as her voice slowly builds from a sputter to its soaring climax, lips quivering, tears streaming, and snot dripping from her nose. There's no overstating it: Hathaway takes a sad, pretty song—but still just a lyrical and musical cliché—and transforms it into one of most powerful moments in movie-musical history.

I'll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, just so I can watch that one four-plus-minute scene over and over again.

But the rest of the film, not so much. These live single-take performances limit the cinematic options, and thus Hooper's Les Miz lives almost entirely in a close-up, with Hugh Jackman's (Jean Valjean) giant head dominating the screen throughout much of the two-and-a-half-hour film. The vocal performances are generally strong—Samantha Barks as the pining Éponine and Eddie Redmayne as the love-struck young revolutionary Marius particularly stand out—but it mostly amounts to a film of people standing around singing... in extreme close-up. Hooper's camera occasionally pans out for the sweeping panoramic views a story this big craves, but Les Miz is an opera, and we quickly zoom back in for the next solo or duet, the camera shoved in the face of one tortured character or another.

The Broadway version of Les Miz, with its sprawling barricades and crowded cast, always seemed to be too big for the stage. This was a play, I thought at the time, that desperately wanted to be a movie. But Hooper's Les Miz is downright claustrophobic, a series of giant heads in dreary circumstances singing tear-jerking songs about the gross social inequities of 19th-century France.

But Hathaway's "I Dreamed a Dream" is fucking amazing. So don't miss it. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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As someone who thinks the singing is paramount, I have to say that Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried were... not good. They both are clearly struggling in any song they sing.

Anne Hathaway was amazing though. That cannot be denied.
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on January 7, 2013 at 3:41 PM · Report this
Porter Melmoth 13
Didn't see it (yet), but a great cast, certainly.

One thing about this saga, it can stand many remakes, as there is much to vary and much to grab onto.
Posted by Porter Melmoth on January 1, 2013 at 3:20 PM · Report this
@11: How did you like the Richard Jordan / Anthony Perkins / Sir John Gielgud version of Les Miserables by comparison?
Posted by auntie grizelda on January 1, 2013 at 2:06 PM · Report this
Porter Melmoth 11
Well Auntie G, I feel it's 'OK' now to rave about the film. It is one of the most carefully-produced films I've seen in the CGI age. The emphasis is on the characters and their performances, where it belongs. All the cinematic tools employed are supportive to them, and not gratuitous.

Indeed, Anne Hathaway is outstanding - and so is EVERYONE ELSE. Russell Crowe can sometimes be a little too Russell Crowe-ish, but his performance was wonderfully appropriate. All the key roles get their own times to steal the show - a most egalitarian production, as nobody hogs it.

While the production is almost entirely studio-bound, the skills are certainly apparent. A few scenes were overly gloomily-lighted, and one longed for just one sunny day, but these are minor complaints.

My only other (minor) complaint: I wish the orchestral score would have been 'pushed' a bit more, as with the old Warner Bros. scores. Aside from that, the score was superbly handled, as if the great Alfred Newman himself was at the podium.

I would also recommend without reservation, the 1935 version with Charles Laughton, who is devastating as Javert, and the 1952 remake, which is pretty decent in all respects.

There is also a French version (several!) with Depardieu & Malkovich, and one with Liam Neeson & Uma Thurman (haven't seen).

Hugo's story is so massive, it's pretty hard to muck up.

This most recent 'Les Miserables' is, I think, nothing short of a triumph, and that's not a common thing for me to say these days. I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was pleasant blown away, impacted, moved, and utterly satisfied.
Posted by Porter Melmoth on January 1, 2013 at 12:14 PM · Report this
Goldy & @9 Porter Melmoth: Okay. Now I'm intrigued about Anne Hathaway's Fantine!
I've got to go see this; my oldest sister and niece already have.

The last Les Miserables I saw starred Richard Jordan as
Jean Valjean, and Anthony (sadly doomed to typecast hell
for his role of Norman Bates) Perkins as the relentless
Toulon Prison guard forever pursuing Valjean, despite his
lifetime vow of self redemption to God.

Nonetheless, Les Miserables is indeed a story that must be told.
Posted by auntie grizelda on January 1, 2013 at 4:03 AM · Report this
Porter Melmoth 9
I just came from seeing it on the screen, and Goldy, my dear fellow, I believe it to be a masterpiece.
Posted by Porter Melmoth on December 31, 2012 at 4:12 PM · Report this
Porter Melmoth 8
Holy shit - I just looked Hooper up on IMDb and indeed he DID direct a 'Prime Suspect'! I didn't know - honest!

Proves my point, sadly.
Posted by Porter Melmoth on December 28, 2012 at 2:22 PM · Report this
Porter Melmoth 7
Having seen the London stage version, I naturally felt it cried out to be a film too, but the theatrics in play were wholly appropriate and fulfilling.

'Les Miz' is a show where the score matters above all else.

The scope of Hugo's story is vast. Why be ashamed of it? All too often today, filmmakers avoid the 'Lawrence of Arabia' approach, preferring 'Prime Suspect' or some other godawful thing with the requisite metallic look.

Sounds like Hooper's prime mission was to destroy the distance between the actors and the last row in the balcony.

If you're gonna do a 'realistic' musical, take a look at 'The Pajama Game' (1957) or 'Oliver' (1968) or even 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' (1968) for crying out loud. That is, if you've got the 'balls', and don't be so fucking embarrassed about it.

Of course, everyone's too cool to take a look at what Stanley Donen did - on fucking soundstages, no less.

There can always be a remake of 'Les Miz'. In the Hollywood of today, that should happen in about two years. Maybe they'll be smart enough to splice in that remarkable Hathaway sequence.
Posted by Porter Melmoth on December 28, 2012 at 2:17 PM · Report this
I think I was lucky to have never seen the musical or read the book before I saw the movie, because I got to have the experience of the story and music as a new thing. I found the extreme close-ups to be a little annoying, but because the story and music were novel to me, they were enough to make up for the bad cinematography.
Posted by alguna_rubia on December 26, 2012 at 10:00 PM · Report this
attitude devant 5
I heard Hooper on a radio interview starting a sentence with "Well, I've never really enjoyed musicals...." and my response was "Uh-oh. This movie is going to suck." Because why the hell would you put anyone who doesn't enjoy musicals in charge of one? Sigh.
Posted by attitude devant on December 26, 2012 at 2:49 PM · Report this
Tracy 4
I honestly didn't think I had any more tears to shed for this story (having grown up with the soundtrack and having seen the stage show 5 times over the years. The last 3 stage viewings (one this year with the re-staged show) were tear-less on my part).

And yet, Hathaway destroyed me. Even Redmayne's song to his fallen comrades had me sniffling again. Perhaps this is because I'd always found Fantine and Marius boring. They never resonated and I never cared much for their struggle. So maybe the surprise of these performances awakened my deadened heart to new layers of misery in this story. (Whereas this Eponine, a character for whom my junior high self often wept, left me very un-moved. Meh. She was perfectly adequate, I just didn't connect or care).

But overall, while I enjoyed the film (mostly), I definitely won't be buying the soundtrack. Lots of emoting/acting going on, but very rarely were any of the songs pretty or even pleasant to listen to.
Posted by Tracy on December 26, 2012 at 11:08 AM · Report this
My god, but Rich Juzwiak nails his view of this movie. Haven't seen it, may not (have yet to see any of these 'industrial' shows), but nobody anatomizes his response to a show like Rich. Here's a taste:
Take the composition of Anne Hathaway's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream," which consists of little more than a tight shot on her face as her eyes flicker terror and anguish, her mouth guzzles and spits, her entire presence hyperventilates. It's a show-stopping performance both literally and metaphorically – there is a tremendous amount of craft there that only feels like craft, stopping the show, taking you out of it and having you fixate on this extremely gifted person doing what she does so well. Compare it to the aesthetically similar (down to the sheared hair), infinitely more affecting video for Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U," and you get a sense of how bloated and over-the-top things are here. This film plays not so much like an embarrassment of riches, but a punishment of craft.…
Posted by gloomy gus on December 26, 2012 at 10:35 AM · Report this
Former Lurker 2
Has Hollywood hit bottom again with yet another reboot? Is Liam Neeson in this one?
Posted by Former Lurker on December 26, 2012 at 9:54 AM · Report this
sikandro 1
I'd be much more excited for this if it weren't a musical.
Posted by sikandro on December 26, 2012 at 9:38 AM · Report this

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