Friday, December 21, 2012

And Must I Now Begin To Doubt?: On the Disappointments of "Les Miserables" (Tom Hooper, 2012)

by James Hansen

I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t mention at the start of this review that I grew up as something of a Les Miserables nerd. It’s one of the first (traveling) Broadway shows I ever saw. In high school, I only had a few tapes in my car to listen to on my 20 minute drive to school and the Les Mis soundtrack was one of them. I still randomly quote lyrics from “The Confrontation Song.” So, when several friends, unaware of this fact, wanted to watch the movie, I clammed up, got a bit jittery, and could hardly contain my hysterically nervous trepidation of watching this thing – my thing – with other people. Naturally, they found this hilarious, pressed forward, and demanded we watch it together. We did. And it wasn’t pretty. In fact, I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t say that this fan of the show found it completely disappointing. 

Now, this isn’t to say that it’s a total misfire. The songs are all here after all! So, to some extent, you can’t take that away. (If you don’t like the show or don’t like musicals in general, I hardly expect this to be the movie that will bring anyone around.) The thing is, even from the get go, director Tom Hooper shows an impeccable lack of directorial chops to establish meaningful connection – emotional or otherwise – with the characters of his “star-studded” ensemble. And, strangely, this is practically Hooper’s design. Much has been said already of Hooper’s decision to live-sing/record all the songs, thus leaving messy voices messy, but granting the film a theatrical performativity typically missing from cinematic adaptations of musicals. Fair enough. What happens because of this is Hooper spends so much time isolating characters from one another in somewhat bizarre close ups that the performers never resonate with one another. Thus, Les Miserables becomes a movie of actors singing at actors without cohesion, thereby disabling the film’s epic scale and limiting it to several entirely isolated star turns. 

Credit where credit is due, in the case of Anne Hatheway’s Fantine, this actually works precisely because Fantine’s character operates somewhere outside the bounds of the movie’s main thrust. Thrown out of a factory overseen by our hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), Fantine wanders the streets begging for money, selling her hair, and turning to prostitution in order to send money to her daughter Cosette. Without connection to the rest of the film’s world (or the world at large), Fantine’s “I Dreamed A Dream” locates her as alone, weak, scared, and hopeless. Hooper stages this mostly in one close up shot which Hathaway performs with supreme sincerity and a feverish intensity. With a surprisingly excellent voice, Hathaway steals the movie before the one-hour mark. Hooper’s style matches the character’s mental state where the outside world discarded this damaged, frail creature, leaving her, as it were, on her own. 

Unfortunately, that Hooper continues with this style for almost every song reveals a more the fortuitous success on the part of Fantine rather than any kind of calculated effort on the part of the director. The plot chugs along, moment by moment, rarely giving the story any room to breathe. Songs are sung over dead bodies time and again. Love songs emerge from mere glances. The primary love “triangle” of the second half (Marius, Eponine, Cosette) features many pretty songs sung by people with pretty voices, but, still, the love story unquestionably comes out both flat and lifeless. There’s so little energy in the (few) moments where Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) are actually together that it deflates not only their supposed connection but further diminishes the role of Eponine (Samantha Barks) whose inextinguishable, unrequited love for Marius comes across as a lot creepier than it should. 

With so many balls in the air, Les Miserables has no choice but to steamroll forward. Hooper’s main problem and weakness comes with the question of scale. From beginning to end, he operates solely to move from song to song rather than crafting a sweeping profundity that could move us moment to moment. Even with the backdrop of the French Revolution, there’s actually very little here that feels truly epic. Jean Valjean’s path to eternal glory chugs at such a breakneck pace, especially in the second half, that the prayers, deaths, and tears start to feel more like a checklist. Hugh Jackman does an admirable job, transforming himself into the many roles of Valjean. The songs, many seemingly at the top of his range, are done beautifully, although, again, without the grand scale behind him, this comes across as more of a Jackman show than a deeply felt call for a new humanism. (Unforgivable, though, is the new song “Suddenly” which has Valjean falling a little too hard for his new daughter. It’s a nearly disastrous, inappropriate note.) 

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Javert (Russell Crowe), perhaps the most pivotal role in the show. Crowe is utterly out of sorts from the opening moments. His voice sounds sucked-up, strained, and instantly unnatural. Hooper, perhaps avoiding some painful closeups, finally grants some space when Javert sings “Stars.” The camera swoops around him and back again. A giant eagle statue distracts us from his butchering of the song, as he wanders around ledges of a building (yes, the foreshadowing is that mind-numbingly obvious) and stares at an artificial sky. Choosing to swerve around Javert at the moments where his critical character is at his most vulnerable, his most human – contemplating his mission of protecting the law, and thus serving God, at all costs – Hooper instead transforms him into the cartoon-like villain, an incessant inconvenience rather than a tortured soul attempting to understand his place in a rapidly changing world. Perhaps he remains the model for this cinematic adaptation of a classic. In the end, like Javert, Hooper’s Les Miserables lands with an awkward thud.

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