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Non-Review Review: Les Misérables

It’s hard not to admire Les Misérables. It’s the first honest-to-goodness entirely sincere and mostly unironic big budget musical that we’ve seen released in quite some time. While song and dance will always be a part of the movies (The Muppets, for example, carrying many a dainty tune last year), there’s something quite impressive about seeing a music as epic and as iconic as Les Misérables carried across to the big screen. The stage musical became something of a cultural phenomenon on the West End, and Tom Hooper does an effective job of transitioning from stage to screen – even if he doesn’t consistently capitalise on the format shift.

There are some fundamental problems. The second half is a little too awkwardly paced and too disjointed to come together as well as it should, and Hooper seems to have a great deal pitching the right amount of camp (and humour) for an Oscar-bait musical about the aftermath of the French revolution. However, if you can look past those problems, the opening half is a superbly staged musical and the performances are impressive. Including the much maligned Russell Crowe, who might – hear me out – be the best thing about the film.

Sing when you're winning... or at least nominated...

Sing when you’re winning… or at least nominated…

Being honest, the transition from stage to screen is efficient. My better half, an avowed fan of the source material, approved and didn’t notice too many substantive differences. There’s a very clear sense that Hooper’s main goal was to take the musical phenomenon and present it on film. It is, of course, an adaptation, but Hooper doesn’t seem to have done too much to account for the fact that he’s telling a story in an entirely different medium.

Credit where credit is due, the most dynamic attempt to take advantage of the shift in format is the decision to sing the musical “live” on the set on the day of recording. It’s something the production has made quite a big deal of, and – watching the film – it’s easy to see why. Most musicals record the songs in the studio and lip-synch on the set. As a result, the performances recorded by the camera arguably amount to a form of mime. It confines the actors’ performances, and moving away from that approach gives a great deal more freedom to the stars.

Making a splash...

Making a splash…

And, to be fair to Hooper, it works fantastically. There’s a great one-take sequence where you can see Anne Hathaway earn her frontrunner status in the Best Supporting Actress race. Of course, I’d argue that she gave a more deserving performance as a woman trapped and forced to criminality within a corrupt capitalist in another film last year – and that at least her role there was that of a fully-formed character, rather than as motivator for the plot with a nice song number. But I digress. Hathaway is great, and the use of long takes and live singing works wonders for all the performers.

However, it’s just about the only real sense of innovation in Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables. The musical is split into two halves with One More Day heralding the interval. The first half is clearly character focused, developing our cast and making the stakes clear. The second half is considerably broader, charting the revolution within the heart of Paris. Hooper executes the first half of the film phenomenally well, because it’s really just filming actors singing great songs in an emotional manner. All do a great job, but all Hooper really has to do is not ruin that.

A small window of opportunity...

A small window of opportunity…

In contrast, the second half requires a bit more effort. Revolution in Paris should be an epic and sweeping event – it should seem like society is tearing itself apart. Naturally, on stage, you are limited by the size of your ensemble and the space afforded you. As such, it makes sense that Paris seems to be populated by about twelve characters at any one time. However, that doesn’t quite cut it when you’re executing something like that on film.

Javert’s scheme to infiltrate the rebellion might be ridiculous in real life, but here it seems spectacularly ill-conceived because there are like a dozen speaking roles in Paris. Of course somebody is going to recognise him, because he seems like he’s the only talking police officer working in the damn city! “Sometimes I walk alone at night, when everybody else is sleeping,” Éponine sings during On My Own, and it’s not too hard to believe. She probably doesn’t have to wait until nightfall for her solo excursions either.

Courting public opinion...

Courting public opinion…

Sure, there are extras on hand to beef up the number of bodies on screen, but not enough. They create the impression of a silent choir rather than an urban population. Hooper seems confined by the musical, rather than inspired by it. His version of Paris isn’t an expansive and anonymous urban sprawl. It’s about five pretty fantastic sets and a CGI image of Notre Dame. As I noted, this works quite well when focusing on characters in the first half, but it doesn’t really provide a tangible sense of scale or stakes during the rebellion in the second half of the film.

I’m not even talking about adding too much to the film, which already has an impressive running time. It’s not a case of adding more context, just a problem with how Hooper frames the stuff that he has. For example, the second half seems far too insular for what we’re told is unfolding, and there’s no real grand sense that this is a big deal. It almost seems like a college prank gone wrong. Some effective establishing shots, or some crowd shots or even some reworking of musical numbers to distribute the lines differently could convey a better sense of scale.

Why so blue?

Why so blue?

Then again, perhaps this speaks to the more fundamental problem with Hooper’s direction. He seems to have no idea exactly how he is pitching Les Misérables. Is this a deathly serious film about poverty and human suffering to be taken entirely seriously, populated with fully-formed and complex characters and motivations? Or is is a camp celebration of an international musical phenomenon? Of course, these are two extremes on a wide spectrum of ways that Hooper could play Les Misérables. The problem isn’t that he opts for one approach over the other, the problem is that he tries to have it both ways.

On the serious and prestigious front, we have elements like the use of real external shots for Valjean’s journeys. These shots, lovingly composed, conspire to place the film in something approaching the real world – not a decidedly “fake” soundstage version of it. There’s the aforementioned decision to do live singing and to keep a lot of the musical numbers tight. That sends a clear message that the film isn’t just idle spectacle. Look, these are serious performances! And we want you to take them in as such! There’s the fact that the brutality seems remarkably palpable, and it’s clear that when you prick Valjean, he bleeds.

I'm sure we'll Russell up some more men...

I’m sure we’ll Russell up some more men…

Sure, there are the logical leaps you need to make to accept a musical works. For example, a character’s method of escaping the blockade makes you wonder why the soldiers don’t just walk in that way. Or, after one character shows mercy by refusing to execute another, the whole film falls apart if anybody makes the rational observation that there isn’t a body around. There are any number of plot holes to be found in the manner in which the plot conspires to repeatedly unite the lead characters.

Such logical leaps are necessary for a musical like this to work, and if you can’t make those basic concessions, then this isn’t for you. That said, working within that framework, a significant portion of the film aims for what might be described as verisimilitude. Some of the sets don’t look like backlots and stages, they look like real location work. Valjean and Fantine are treated like credible realistic characters who could have been found on the set of a prestigious period drama. It just so happens that they sing here.

It'll grow on you...

It’ll grow on you…

However, Hooper spends just as much time undermining this serious tone. In contrast to the entirely in-their-face style performances of I Dreamed a Dream and Valjean’s Confession, we get broad quick-cutting comedy for Master of the House. It’s not that there aren’t some good gags here, it’s that there’s a really bizarre tonal shift. Hooper was busy trying to earn Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway their Oscar nominations, and then Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen show up fresh from the set of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

That’s unfair, because both Carter and Cohen give credible performances, it’s just that they’re pitched at an entirely different level than those of Jackman and Hathaway. It’s like they come from two different films. And it’s not the first time this strange tonal shit happens. I Dreamed a Dream is a spectacular moment, and one that is wisely unencumbered by spectacle. However, it directly follows a musical sequence about prostitutes that really wouldn’t seem out of place in a heavily stylised Tim Burton film, with pale make-up and gothic design coupled with overt theatricality.

He has the floor...

He has the floor…

There are some very questionable decisions from Hooper himself. For one thing, the director uses Dutch angles without a hint of irony. There are points in the film when I was developing neck pains trying to get a good look at what was going on. I won’t deny that Dutch angles can be an effective narrative tool, but they’ve become a visual shorthand for cheesy. It’s very hard to take an emotional conversation seriously when it looks like Javert is going to jump out of nowhere at any moment, twirling a moustache and carrying an umbrella.

The problem isn’t with one approach or the other. It would be ridiculous to suggest that camp has no place in an adaptation of a massively popular West End musical, just as it would be absurd to argue that the material here doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Both approaches are valid, and the film does both quite well at different points. The problem is that Hooper seems to have put no real thought into how all this is going to coalesce into a unified film. This take might work quite well on stage (if you imagine the close-up one-take songs as live videos projected on to giant monitors for those in the cheap seats), but it doesn’t work on film.

Light relief...

Light relief…

Sometimes Hooper draws attention to the fakeness of everything, but other times he asks us to accept this world at face value. Those are two extremes on the scale. They don’t cause that much trouble in the first half when we do jump from character-to-character and there’s at least a cut to explain the shift in tone. Unfortunately, it wreaks havoc on the second half, when the story brings all of these characters and styles together for extended sequences.

And here’s the thing. I actually think that Russell Crowe is the only performer in the whole thing who manages to hit that perfect sweet spot where he can reconcile the emotional intensity at the heart of Victor Hugo’s story while still smiling at the audience in some way. I won’t argue that Crowe is the most technically competent member of the cast. Hathaway and Jackman have him dead to rights on that. My better half noted that Stars had to be orchestrated to take into account Crowe’s limited vocal ability.

As the Crowe flies...

As the Crowe flies… (the flag…)

And yet, despite that, Crowe gives one hell of a performance. On the face of it, Crowe belting out lines like “… they will wet themselves with blood” and Javert’s incredibly stupid infiltration plan are overtly ridiculous. The very sight of Crowe in song, briefing the ten or so assembled extras who seem to comprise Paris’ entire police force, is absurd. Then again, this is a man who would pursue Jean Valjean to the ends of the earth for stealing a loaf of bread. So that sort of comes built in.

Indeed, Crowe’s very presence acknowledges the forced campy elements much better than the more serious and more technically proficient performances from Jackman and Hathaway. However, Crowe is also really good. He might not be the best singer, but he’s a decent one. He’s better than Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia, and he’s a damn fine actor. The pathos of Javert is never overshadowed or ignored, despite the heightened melodrama of a character who lets a stolen loaf of bread dominate his existence. It’s crazy, but it’s also very sad. It’s the very pinnacle of the absurdity of Les Misérables, but it’s also the perfect expression of its more human qualities.

It's a Thénardier line between love and hate...

It’s a Thénardier line between love and hate…

It’s very easy to focus on the fact that Crowe isn’t as good a musical performer as his fellow stars. I think that’s a bit harsh. For one thing, Javert is clearly meant to be (metaphorically) out of tune with them. For another, Crowe’s Javert is the only character in the Hooper’s film who manages to work on both levels. He’s effective on the level of a bombastic iconic stage musical, but he’s also effective as a very flawed human character in a morality drama.

And I say that completely without any irony or cynicism. Russell Crowe’s Javert embodies the very best of Hooper’s Les Misérables. And, to be fair, when it is good – it is very good. It just suffers because Hooper’s never quite sure what he wants it to be. Is it a serious drama or a loud and gawdy musical adaptation? Either approach (or neither) would be valid, but the problem arises when the two conflict.

He has some pull...

He has some pull…

Still, the opening half is a nice old-fashioned large-scale musical executed efficiently. The performances are solid, and the three leads are exceptional. The problem is just in the second half, when the action starts driving the characters, rather than vice versa.

One Response

  1. Wonderful review!

    I’ve always been a bit leery of Les Misérables because of how heavy handed the propaganda in the source material seemed (heh, I think I have a higher opinion of Louis-Phillipe than Victor Hugo did) but I have to say that going in with limited limited knowledge I enjoyed it throughly. Like you I thought a lot of Russell Crowe so I’m glad to see him get his due. Javert was certainly the character than moved me most

    I know I’m probably in a small minority but I think Anne Hathaway has been a little overhyped. She did a very good job and deserves praise but she’s a relatively small part of a very big film and I think she’s unfairly eclipsed some of the other players. Then again I suppose it pays to have the good parts; has there ever been a more thankless role than adult Cosette? (Poor Amanda Seyfried – one of my favourite actresses and genuinely talented but she could hardly do much with the part.) Again I think Hathaway was good but Crowe, Jackman, Cohen and co. were also good and deserve a little buzz of their own

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