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.