By Tim Posada, 1/03/2013
Before I begin, I must preface with the following: I approach “Les Misérables” as a true fan. The 10-year anniversary cast performance remains a personal favorite album, and I also had the opportunity to experience this gem of a show in London. “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, particularly Michael Ball’s incredible rendition, remains one of the most passionate songs on Broadway, and my personal favorite to sing, both in the shower and once upon a time during auditions.
That said, I cannot in good conscious endorse this uneven film that strips Victor Hugo’s masterful 1862 novel of all emotion in a fickle attempt to replicate the musical scene for scene. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music, and the lyrics of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (Herbert Kretzmer for the English version), become stale in the hands of director Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech”), who replaces the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption in the eyes of God despite corrupt French society’s continual pursuit of him into near three hours of straight misery with no payoff.
Hooper’s “Les Miz” is meant for fans, while the uninitiated will stir in their seats without an intermission, confused by choppy film editing and amateurish cinematography. Newbies will most likely find moments like Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) progression into “whoredom” confusing. In poorly cut scenes, she quickly transitions from factory worker to crew-cut-donning (kind of, she sold her hair) street worker so she can pay rent. Like many other expository moments, it all happens so quickly.
And what of Valjean’s (Hugh Jackman) redemption after a priest shows him grace rather than send him back to prison for stealing the church’s silver? On stage, a vexed Valjean pacing left and right might work, but doing the same up and down a church sanctuary feels too on the nose (we get it, you’re in the house of God deciding if you’ll follow him or turn away). This scene sets the stage for the rest of this exhausting film in another way as well: no actor seems to know what to do during songs, especially since the camera rarely leaves each singer’s face.
I must tip my period-specific hat to Hooper. With this many headshots during each song, it’s easy to see how audiences can become just as somber as the characters themselves. Much like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 French classic, “The Passion of Joan of Arc”, this many close ups increases the film’s visceral effect. Alas, Hooper — a proven filmmaker he may be — has much to learn about evoking anxiety through a compelling combination of performance and film technique verses, creating tension through a lack of visual variety.
“Les Miz” is a complex show that would take several pages just to effectively summarize, but rather than create a visual experience that could introduce a new generation to perhaps the greatest musical of all time, Hooper takes the laziest approach to the material, all under the guise of preserving the original –– that trite excuse that gave us a “Lord of the Rings” film with a 45-minute ending (“The Return of the King”) and “Watchmen”, which was near perfect in adaptation but just as soulless as “Les Miz”.
But the singing must be good, right? It’s OK. Jackman — no stranger to Broadway — effectively leads the show, but rather than tackle the infamous high notes Valjean is known for (few baritones can hit a tenor’s high notes like Valjean must), every spectacular moment dissolves into soft introspection, turning a powerhouse musical into the Broadway equivalent of an acoustic show that drastically needs some drums and an electric guitar.
And then there’s Russell Crowe cast as Javert, the French officer so dedicated to the law that Valjean’s parole violation is just as important as the Paris Uprising of 1832 in the film’s third act. Unintentional or not, Crowe’s singing voice is just as rigid as his character is stubborn. However, if this is intentional, it’s like retelling the same joke for 157 minutes.
The one saving grace of this musical mess is Hathaway, who steals the show. Sadly, upon her early exeunt, she takes the show’s soul with her. But for a brief moment, Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” makes it all worthwhile … briefly (watch the trailer instead).
I realize I should be more impressed that the entire cast sang live during each take, but that novelty dwindles quickly amidst a musical film that sounds well enough — looking past Amanda Seyfried’s (as an older Cosette) uneven vibrato — but provides little of worth beyond what the ear can hear. As far as setting, this is the production “Les Miz” deserves, but no amount of money can make up for the lack of heart at the core of this film. It’s not a terrible film; it’s something far worse: it’s boring.