I am not sure if my feelings about a movie have ever been as conflicted as they are for Les Miserables.
When Tom Hooper’s ambitious adaptation of the celebrated stage musical works at full capacity, it is a wonder to behold, as good or better than anything else released in 2012. Many individual scenes function as stunning works of art, relentlessly powerful punches of raw human emotion delivered straight to the viewer’s heart. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s stupendous performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” stands as the movie moment of 2012, as far as I am concerned, an impossibly riveting, stirring, and simple sequence built entirely on the direct communication of passion between actress and audience. And there are several more scenes nearly as good, moments where Hooper has done nothing less than innovate and perfect the cinematic musical. When Les Miserables reaches these peaks, little else can compare. It is transcendent.
Yet when I take the film as a whole, judging every element in unison as a critic must, I find myself ultimately disappointed. The highs are so high that they render the lows easily dismissible, but low points there are, and as the film moves along, they become increasingly frequent. Les Miserables is overlong, poorly focused, and ultimately too stage-bound to achieve its full potential, and though it absolutely pains me to admit that as “I Dreamed a Dream” plays on a never-ending loop in my head, ignoring these and other problems would be a rejection of my critical duty.
Almost all my issues with the film stem from the source material. Beloved though the musical may be, Les Miserables is not without its fair share of flaws, and those imperfections are enhanced tenfold when placed under the scrutiny of a cinematic lens. The story of Jean Valjean, reformed thief trying to do right by God while the dedicated Inspector Javert pursues him endlessly, is a terrific tale. It expertly and emotionally confronts the many complications and contradictions raised by man’s desire to achieve morality, faith, and happiness in unison, with a degree of intimacy I find utterly compelling. Whenever Valjean or Javert are the focus of a scene, I am more than riveted; I am entranced, drunk on the power of great storytelling executed to perfection.
But in the story’s second half, Les Miserables broadens its scope to become a tale of revolution, and this is where the musical loses me. I fully comprehend the thematic connections between Valjean and the June Rebellion, and I respect the importance of this moment in history as a backdrop for the musical’s larger moral discussions, but I find just about everything relating to the revolt severely underdeveloped.
How can I care for this new crop of characters as much as I do Valjean with so much less time spent developing them? Why should I sympathize with the revolutionaries over Inspector Javert when the latter’s worldview has been so much more thoroughly established, explained, and humanized over the course of the story? Should I not be annoyed that the protagonist is sidelined to switch focus to characters I have no established emotional connection with? How on earth am I to care about a romance between the primary young characters, Marius and Cosette, when the entire relationship is predicated on fairy-tale ‘love at first sight?’
The questions go on and on, but they all boil down to one issue: When it comes to the revolutionary or romantic material, I simply do not care. Historically, this was an interesting and important moment in France, but the musical itself relates almost none of its significance to the viewer, depending on assumed audience knowledge to make up for glossing over narrative and thematic points. It is not enough, to my mind, to simply tell us these characters suffer and automatically expect our full sympathy and investment.
I need more, and the time that would be spent establishing such crucial elements is instead focused on the personal journey of Jean Valjean. His story certainly gives one context for the sad historical state of France, but only through Valjean’s perspective, and since he is not a major player or catalyst in the revolution, the care I had developed in the story is placed elsewhere. My attention remains always with Valjean, or Javert, and I believe the musical does a pretty poor job broadening my horizon to include Marius and the other rebels. Even songs like “Bring Him Home” and “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” unquestionably masterpieces in a vacuum, fell relatively flat in context due to my utter disinterest in the revolution and its consequences.
None of these are faults of the film. I understand that. They are complete and total holdovers from the musical, and to be fair, these issues probably matter very little on stage. Live performance is an entirely different medium from film, and on stage, it is perfectly permissible to gloss over characterization or suddenly broaden the narrative without illustrating in-between steps. One does not watch a stage show for perfect story cohesion; the focus is more on performance, passion, and spectacle. But the standards are different for film, which is a much more intimate and narratively demanding format. And when one takes Les Miserables from the stage and puts it on screen largely intact, the story does not function cinematically. It has become a film, and is therefore beholden to the critical standards of filmmaking, and under those standards, it falters rather severely at times.
But Les Miserables ultimately works more than it doesn’t, and in those moments when the film’s full potential is realized, it absolutely soars. Tom Hooper is never a director I have been very fond of; his affinity for Dutch angles, the wide-angle lens, placing characters in the lower corner of the screen to waste as much space as possible, and other attention-grabbing camera tricks have never played well for me – I thought The King’s Speech looked pretty horrible from start to finish – but in Les Miserables, Hooper has finally found the perfect outlet for his visual eccentricities. Though he cants the camera a few too many times, his photographic style is essential to making Les Miserables cinematic, each ‘trick’ not only evoking a precise emotional or intellectual response, but highlighting the visual aspects of a story that could so easily be overwhelmed by aural elements. This is a gorgeous, visually compelling triumph, with many individual shots forever etched in my brain as extraordinary moments of pure movie magic.
Hooper’s best directorial decision, though, is to have the actors sing live, usually in long close-up takes. Traditionally, music in film is recorded beforehand in a studio, and the actors then lip-sync to their original performance. But Les Miserables is almost entirely sung, and this method would never give the actors proper leeway to bring their characters, or the story, to life. So Hooper has everyone sing live, and it works splendidly. There is a powerful and poignant immediacy to these performances, one that could only be captured live, and the long take close-ups only increase the intimacy. When these characters sing, we are focused entirely on their face; the performance is everything, more so even than on stage, and because the acting is stupendous across the board, the results are similarly stirring. It is in these moments, when Hooper steps back, adjusts the camera precisely, and trusts his actors with the rest that Les Miserables transcends not only the stage and source material, but the conventional limits of cinema.
For if the film has one flawless element, one quality I cannot find fault in, it must certainly be the acting. Hooper has assembled a tremendous ensemble, each performer as compelling as the last. Hugh Jackman leads with vulnerability and gusto as Jean Valjean, putting his considerable vocal chops to the test and passing with flying colors. I found his counterpart, Inspecter Javert, even more captivating, partially because of the character’s ethical complexities, but largely thanks to Russell Crowe’s spellbinding work. I had no idea Crowe had such a powerful baritone voice, but his singing is riveting, and he somehow translates more through how he sings than what he sings.
But the standout performer of the movie is of course Anne Hathaway; as tragic single mother Fantine, she is a true supporting player, gone after the first forty minutes, but what a mark she leaves. I have already spoken of “I Dreamed a Dream” as the cinematic highlight of 2012, but even outside that marvelous song, her total commitment to the part, emotionally raw and devastating, grounds a lot of material that would otherwise stray too far into the melodramatic. Hathaway is sensational, and absolutely deserves the Best Supporting Actress Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. She achieves more in one scene that most lead performers have in entire movies.
Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks all have standout moments as well – Hooper has a magic touch, it seems, in conjuring tremendous solo sequences – though the film falls to pieces whenever it shifts attention to two scrappy villains played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Their performances are good, but the characters are useless, and the two lengthily solo sequences the duo share are major missteps.
But I must stress, once again, how well Les Miserables works when firing on all cylinders. At its best, this surpasses anything else I have seen in 2012 in terms of pure emotional power, and I emphatically recommend it for that reason alone. But there are ultimately too many scenes that fall flat for me to call this one an unequivocal success. It is a beautiful work, but a highly flawed one, and despite many moments of sheer transcendence, the film as a whole falls short of greatness.