In news that will shock few of you, Tom Hooper is not a great director. Sure, he won Best Director for 2010’s Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, but that award – as many will attest – was spurious at best, given that the film was, like its central figure, a modest one. In short it was fine but, mercifully for Hooper, buoyed by the gift of a terrific Colin Firth performance and a good one from Geoffrey Rush to boot.
So naturally, Hooper’s follow-up to it has been subject to much anticipation. It felt like a make or break moment. “Here,” the universe said, “show us what you can do with an adaptation of one of the most well-known and revered musicals of all time.” Having seen the film, it now feels like he was set up to fail. Trading an intimate tale of a meek man triumphing over moderate odds for an epic, grandiose fable of love and compassion. The problem, then, is that Hooper has decided to approach the latter in the manner of the former, leading to a two-and-a-half hour film that feels like a few episodes of television stitched together. Suffice to say, I have many problems with it.
To elaborate: Les Misérables is a sung-through musical, ergo, you’ll barely hear a word not belted nor tremulously squeaked out (here’s looking at you, Amanda Seyfried). To summarise, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) stole some bread once, spent nineteen years in jail before being released on parole by a weirdly single-minded policeman, Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean steals some stuff from a bishop who takes him in, is caught, then the bishop lets him keep the stuff and tells him to go off and live a noble life. Valjean is moved to God by this redemption, likely lulled into a false sense of security by a 19th Century bishop not being a dick for once.
Nine years later and with only more hair and less thinness to age him, Valjean is the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, and Javert is stationed there because drama. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) works in Valjean’s factory, but gets thrown out by the foreman – whose advances she repeatedly rejected – after the other workers discover she has been sending money to her illegitimate child Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), even though Valjean totally could’ve stopped that. Fantine sells her locket, hair and body in order to provide for Cosette, who lives with the thieving innkeepers Thénadier (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Madame Thénadier (Helena Bonham Carter, whose name could be Helena Bonham-Baron Carter-Cohen if they got married).
Meanwhile, Javert thinks he recognises Valjean despite his new identity as Monsieur la maire, but feels he must be mistaken because there’s a dude on trial for his crimes already. Valjean, now being a reformed and noble man of God, cannot let the man be punished for his crimes and reveals himself to Javert. Having tried to save a dying Fantine, he asks for three days to rescue Cosette and give her the life her mother never could. Javert refuses because he believes a criminal can never change and Valjean conks him on the noggin’ and escapes.
Ten years and literally zero aging makeup later, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) chat about how shitty the rich people in government are. Éponine (Samantha Barks), who grew up as the Thénadiers’ spoiled daughter while Cosette worked for them, is secretly in love with Marius (even though Enjolras is just as cuter as Marius we should TOTALLY JUST STAB MARIUS), but Marius sees grown-up Cosette and they immediately fall in love, because that is what happens in fiction and liars say happens in real life. Éponine lets Marius rope her into helping find Cosette, a love triangle ensues, and Marius and Enjolras start to try and lead some kind of uprising.
I’m only taking such a flippant approach so far because there’s so much plot and so many characters that need to be contextualised for proper criticism of the film to take place – so let’s start with the fact that this is the most claustrophobic, unimaginatively shot film I have seen in a long time. Given the pedigree at play here, I can be forgiven for expecting something far more adventurous and, frankly, faithful to the nature of the source material. Instead, the various plots, haphazardly edited together, feel like various instalments in a miniseries rather than a whole, cohesive film.
The screenplay, put together by William Nicholson (Oscar-nominated writer of Gladiator and, uh, Nell), is at least partly to blame here. Somehow, the approach he and Hooper have taken is to adapt Les Misérables without, well, any adaptation. What we see is essentially the stage production copy-pasted into a film, with the addition of another song because it’s another Oscar they can win, I guess. Why they did this positively baffles me because it’s created an incredibly strange viewing experience that rarely works well.
Part of the problem is the fact that Hooper shoots all fifty songs in the film in more or less the same manner. This $61 million production, with all its elaborate production design, is rendered near-pointless. Reportedly, Hooper chose to do this so that the actors – who admirably sang the songs live on set – could ACT SUPER HARD, and the wide-angle close-ups he employs are supposed to help them better connect emotionally with the audience even though it always looks like Hooper is trying to point out something vaguely more interesting than Anne Hathaway’s tear-stained face twinkling in the out-of-focus background.
It’s also a betrayal of the film’s setting. The scenes of rebellion and revolution feel oddly small and tinny, a sense of scale only ever conveyed by poor-CGI aerial panoramas of Paris, most of which are mostly dully lit and shot from too far away anyway. Adding to all of this is the fact that neither Jackman nor Crowe seem to have been given even an ounce of aging make-up, despite Valjean’s being at least 50 – possibly 60 – by the time the film reaches its third act. It’s a very jarring choice to be told that time had passed without that time being conferred upon the actual, you know, character. Adding to that is the problem that this intimate shooting style creates really weird sexual tension between Valjean and Cosette…and Valjean and Javert. Super weird.
Which brings me to the performances. The stand-out is Samantha Barks, who in reprising her role as Éponine from the West End production, manages to stop herself from appearing like an over-emotive amateur from a community theatre production, a feat only otherwise accomplished by Hathaway. That said, Hathaway’s much-touted performance is not nearly as spectacular as the hivemind might make it seem. While her highs are the highest, she barely amounts to more than a cameo (and a late-film return only underscores this) to the point where the idea of her role being a supporting one seems almost comical. But like, she cut off all her hair and died in the fraction of the film she’s in, so we may as well just hurl statues at her, right?
Jackman is shockingly bad as Valjean. Despite his vocal talent and musical theatre bonafides, he is either thwarted by Hooper’s oppressive direction or simply an inability to act and sing simultaneously (I suspect the former). With the camera constantly in his face, his performance translates as desperate mugging – a problem not faced by Russell Crowe largely because he fails to show any facial emotion throughout the entire film, nor any in his flat – though competent – baritone. I found myself groaning each time at the prospect of another Javert number, wishing not to hear Crowe bellow any more lyrics in the same bland affect.
Seyfriend is fine but her sunny trill tends to make little impact, Redmayne acquits himself quite nicely as Marius, and Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter probably should’ve been chopped out of the film aside from the few times their presence has actual plot significance – their attempted comic relief stretches into parody, like some kind of odd Family Guy cutaway. Barks’ rendition of “On My Own” aside, the musical moments that make the most impact are the choral ones, particularly evidenced in the rather majestic final shot, which hints at a far better film we never get to see.
It’s not that Hooper couldn’t have made this film well, but I can’t help but think he was desperate to fight against the quite accurate assertions of his directorial blandness after The King’s Speech had so much success. This seems more like a project he should have tackled a decade down the line once he had fine-tuned his more flighty film-making choices and maybe learned how to frame shots.
It probably sounds like I found it to be an unendurable horror, but there’s still sufficient life in the performances, story and songs – “One Day More” is still in my head several hours later – to offset the fact that a timeless musical has been reduced to monotonous, generic bombast. With its relentless repetition and bloated runtime, I’d be surprised if even the film-going public respond well to Les Mis, but then stranger things have happened. It’s just a shame to see this cast, this music, this text, go so direly to waste.