The long-awaited film version of the beloved stage show “Les Misérables” is a musical in close-up.
Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for directing “The King’s Speech,” pushes his camera right up to his actor’s faces, which is unusual for a musical where the camera is often back far enough so that we can see the performers dance.
“Les Misérables” features little dancing but much emoting. To allow his cast, which is headlined by Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean and Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, to act through song, Cooper had them sing “live” on the soundstage rather than the traditional method of lip-synching to a prerecorded track. The actors’ only accompaniments were tiny microphones in their ear that allowed an off-screen keyboardist to guide them. He could slow or speed the tempo to match a performer’s reading of the song. The background orchestration, bombastically arranged by Anne Dudley, was added later.
For a while, Hooper’s innovative and intimate camerawork is thrilling to watch. If Anne Hathaway, who plays the tragic Fantine, did nothing more than sing the show’s signature theme, “I Dreamed a Dream,” she would still get her Oscar nomination. Hooper films the number not just in close-up, but in a single take, allowing Hathaway to dredge up every emotion in her being and wring them out through the lyrics.
It is a stunning piece of cinema.
Four or five songs later, though, the technique feels old hat. By the end of the two hour and 38 minute show, you wish Hooper would pull back the camera and let Jackman and Crowe do a soft shoe routine, however inappropriate it may be to the song. As an element of film grammar, the close-up should be used sparingly, its timing chosen for emphasis. Hooper’s treatment of “Les Misérables” is like a novel where two out of every three sentences end in an exclamation point.
Will fans of the stage musical, which ran for 13 years and 6,680 performances during its original Broadway engagement, care? Probably not. This film is made for them. Newcomers may be baffled. Those who don’t know the story going in will be lucky if they know it going out.
Taken from Victor Hugo’s vast 1862 novel (many copies are thicker than the Bible), “Les Misérables” is told in three parts, each separated by roughly a decade.
After Valjean is released from forced labor 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread, his guard Javert nastily reminds him that he is still on parole and will be known as a convict for the rest of his life. Valjean then steals silver from a bishop who gives him shelter and is stunned when the bishop forgives him. On the spot, Valjean vows to reform his life, even though that means breaking parole.
The story resumes nine years later as Valjean is now one town’s benevolent mayor. The newly assigned police inspector, Javert, immediately suspects the mayor is the prisoner he once guarded. Meanwhile, Valjean is too late to save the life of sickly prostitute Fantine but promises to look after her daughter, Cosette, currently a servant girl to unscrupulous innkeepers.
The innkeepers are played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, veterans of the film musical “Sweeney Todd” (he must have forgiven her for slashing his throat). Bonham Carter and Cohen liven things up by performing the comic “Master of the House,” the only number performed with the full pomp of a stage musical.
The story jumps ahead another 10 years with Cosette a teenager played by Amanda Seyfried, star of a much different musical, “Mama Mia!” The doomed Paris Rebellion of 1832 is brewing, and Cosette falls for one of the revolutionary leaders, Marius (Eddie Redmayne).
This chapter forms the bulk of the film, which is unfortunate because much of it focuses on a love triangle with Éponine (Samatha Barks) as the neglected third person. Cosette and Marius are as virtuous and dull a pair of lovers as 19th century literature has to offer, and all the singing in the world can’t change that.
As it was on the stage, “Les Misérables” is a “sung-through” musical with little spoken dialogue, which makes it practically an opera. Hooper’s devotion to the score is reverential, and fans will require no less. But Hooper’s approach gets in the way of simple storytelling.
Important plot points are glossed over. Valjean stealing from the bishop is reduced to a series of jump cuts. The moment that Valjean inadvertently allows Fantine to be fired from his factory gets lost in a flurry of lyrics.
Even though the original show written by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel didn’t become a sensation until it was translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer and transplanted to the London stage, it is still galling to hear this French epic sung with British accents.
Jackman, Crowe and Hathaway give first-rate performances that come from the soul.
“The Phantom of the Opera” and “Rent” were disastrous Broadway-to-cinema adaptations. “Les Misérables” is not.
Yet “Les Misérables” is a story filled with heartbreak, emotion and spirituality. Those qualities get muffled in the musical’s translation to the screen. To see how Hugo’s tale can truly work as a film, seek out the 1998 version starring Liam Neeson, which was neglected at the time because audiences expected the musical. That movie now deserves an apology.