It is incredibly difficult to make a good movie musical. From the early Hollywood musicals of the 1930s onward, directors have had to construct complex sets and orchestrate athletic dance sequences. Actors have had to find the right emotion in their voices and overcome the basic implausibility of suddenly bursting into song. Modern Broadway adaptations have been a mixed bag; Chicago found an innovative way to handle its big numbers, whereas Nine was a middle-brow attempt to dissect a highbrow filmmaker. The latest big-budget musical is Les Misérables, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of a Broadway adaptation of a very long Victor Hugo novel. There is no reason it couldn’t work, yet under Hooper’s lazy supervision, this is one of the most inept films of the year.
The camera begins underwater, and once it bubbles to the surface, the image of a massive ship is striking. A group of prisoners, including Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), are struggling to pull the ship toward the port. Javert (Russell Crowe) supervises them with sneering contempt, so when Valjean later escapes, Javert devotes his life to capturing him. Valjean eventually rebuilds himself as a decent man: he adopts Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) after her prostitute mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) dies in a hospital. The revolution is not far away, and while young men rage against the monarchy, Javert continues his endless pursuit of Valjean. This kind of material is ripe for big ideas. Through endless song, the actors contemplate justice, love, revenge, compassion, and forgiveness.
Few lines are actually spoken in Les Misérables. It is wall-to-wall singing, even when two characters are exchanging dialogue. In a widely circulated PR campaign, the cast explains how they sang on set, which would theoretically give them an opportunity to introduce more feeling into their interpretations. What the campaign does not say, however, is how Hooper would film every number with the same exact shot. His strategy is jaw-droppingly incompetent: he shoots whoever happens to be singing in a medium close shot, and cuts to the next person when the line is over. He does this for the vast majority of the film’s two hour and forty minute running time.
Such a terrible filmmaking strategy damages the emotion at the core of the material. When Marius (Eddie Redmayne) holds Éponine (Samantha Barks) in his arms as she dies, Hooper never shows them singing to each other. By only cutting from him to her, there is no sense of loss when she passes. The musical might have top-notch production values, yet the camerawork give the songs a claustrophobic feeling. He might as well have shot the actors against a black screen since it would have achieved the same result. Some sequences are more open — we see Valjean hike the mountainside, and “Master of the House” attempts bawdy fun — but Hooper lacks the confident eye to convey the tone he wants. The musical includes several songs where different character groups overlap to form a single, intense melody. The confluence of such a large cast is powerful to see on stage. In the film equivalent, Hooper still fucks it up with one medium close-up after another.
Just like The King’s Speech, Hooper’s previous film, the actors are front and center here. They try their best to elevate the material, singing with whatever tone the scene requires, but the direction hinders their earnest performances at nearly every turn. Jackman is an intensely physical actor, for example, and Hooper does not know what to do with his coiled choreography. The younger actors are not so forceful, and their naiveté is an intriguing, unintentional counter-balance to their seasoned counter-parts. Of everyone involved, Russell Crowe never quite finds the right note (sometimes literally) as Javert, which is all the more frustrating since his character should undergo the most complex transformation. Crowe must be thankful he has a scapegoat for his unremarkable performance.
Despite its near-constant missteps, Anne Hathaway and Tom Hooper get the big, operatic feelings exactly right for about five minutes. “I Dreamed a Dream” is a heartbreaking song, and Hathaway nails it. I don’t mind telling you I shed a tear during the number, and Hooper makes the right choice by only showing Hathaway’s expressive face in all its anguish. Five minutes, unfortunately, is not enough to save Les Misérables from cinematic disaster.