Hey, did you know they made of movie of Les Mis? It’s true. Directed by Tom Hooper, stars Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway. You probably haven’t heard of it, but believe me, it’s a real thing. Slipped in right under most people’s radars. Anyway, I saw it and this is what I think of it.
My opinion: “This is garbage!”
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Alright, backtracking now. Prior to the 2012 debacle, I had experienced three different versions of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of sin and redemption and crime and justice and sewage. I enjoyed all three of them to varying degrees, but haven’t much deep affection for any. I have never read the novel, nor do I intend to. Life is too short to wade through five goddamn volumes of Hugo’s laborious scribbling.
Here’s a brief look at each of the three versions I’ve seen.
1998 film with Liam Neison: Passable, but nothing special. Feels very “TV.” The two leads, at least, are pretty good.
2007 radio adaptation starring Brian Blessed: Brilliant. I’ve always had a soft spot for radio dramas, and this is one of the good ones. Blessed makes an amazing Valjean, and the format gives Hugo’s expansive story a bit more room to breathe than most other adaptations. Radio is a really great way to adapt books, as it easily allows for narration to keep the story moving along and focuses on crafted language over streamlined visual representation. See also: BBC Radio’s Lord of the Rings.
1995 film version of the musical: Incredible, but strange. There’s minimal staging here, it’s essentially just actors in costume stepping up to the mike to sing. The songs, however, really work, and the performances kick ass. Philip Quast’s Javert is utterly unimpeachable. This is the first version of the story I ever saw, and it’s the one which made the deepest impression. The first musical I ever saw that really blew me away.
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So, I like the musical, and I like the underlying story well enough. I didn’t have any great anticipations for this film, but I was certainly expecting to like it. I must confess that, sitting there in that gloomy theater on a snowy winter night, I was starting to hope that I would love this movie. All the pieces were in place for something really special and, even thought I may come across as a cynic, I was more than willing to give myself over to the film and let it have its way with me.
Dozens of shitty trailers later, the lights go down, faint music begins to ebb out, and the logos fade one after the other. Anticipation is, at this point, extraordinarily high, you almost want to stand up and scream or cheer just to let out the excitement rising in your chest. That’s the magic of movies. And then: Bam! we’re in the film. A vast warship is being pulled into dry docks by a legion of filthy men in chains. They bellow out their chanting song as they pull, and the spectacle of it washes over you.
And then the song ends, and I’m back, staring an unpleasant truth right in the face: this does not work.
The whole movie I felt like I was trying to force my way into it, and was being kept at arm’s length. There was such a veneer of unreality that the film became impenetrable. Ironically, I felt like I was watching people on a stage. I didn’t really understand it at first. I mean, I love musicals and have no problem being immersed in that sort of film. Something about this movie, however, felt off in a way that really bothered me.
Getting to the root of my dissatisfaction was difficult at first, but now that I’ve had some time to think it over, I think I can explain exactly why the film didn’t work for me.
Okay, number one reason: the cinematography sucked. All shaky cam and awkward close ups and people staring right into the camera. Naturally, there were a handful of utterly pointless dutch angles. That’s the first and surest sign of trouble: pointless dutch angles. Hooper comes across here as a fumbling film student scrambling to try out every neat shot he can think of because… well… just because.
Two: The singing was awful. Really quite terrible. There’s something so perverse about hearing out-of-breath actors panting out melody in the middle of a sword fight while trying to act and stay in key all at the same time. It was… not good. Most of the actors weren’t up to the task, and the way the songs were preformed seemed completely arbitrary from person to person. Everybody seemed like they were operating under a totally different style. Jackman is gruff and direct, Crowe is kind of rock-star preforming, Seyfried trills in full-on musical theater mode, Boham Carter and Baron Cohen yap and caterwaul and generally prance about like they’ve wandered directly off the set of Sweeney Todd, and Hathaway murmur/whispers everything. Yes yes, I Dreamed a Dream was effective, but that was only because Hathaway’s performance of the song was so powerful, that doesn’t mean it fit. Everything else about that sequence was miserable and cheap. It felt more like an exploitation film than anything Quentin Tarantino has ever filmed.
Third point: The style feels terribly arbitrary. Nothing has any weight. Everything is buried under the costumes and make-up and set direction. The movie looks tremendous at any given moment, but there’s no cohesive art direction. Most of the time the film goes for a really gritty realistic approach, with lots of horrible teeth and meticulously recreated streets. Other times, when the movie really wants to amp up the drama, it pulls out the Burtonesque gothic. The Thénardiers in particular looks like they got their costumes from another movie. They don’t look worse, they just look like they don’t belong. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, and so it tries to be everything and ends up being nothing.
All those other problems are subordinate to this one central flaw: this is a sloppy movie. The style is sloppy, the singing is sloppy, the film making is sloppy, every single goddamn aspect of the movie is sloppy sloppy sloppy. This is a story that’s begging for old-school Hollywood grandeur. The musical especially has an operatic splendor that’s totally diluted by the off-the-cuff intimacy of Hooper’s film.
So what went wrong? Hooper’s coming off John Adams and The King’s Speech, which were both pretty darn good. How did he fuck up this bad? My guess is that Hooper panicked. There have been so many versions of this movie over the years he must have been desperate to distinguish himself, to make this one different and unique. In the end, I think that he was done in by his ambition. Here’s the truth now: Hooper is not a very good director. He’s great at getting strong performances from skilled actors, but that’s about it. Every time he tries fancy film-making he ends up looking like he’s in over his head. His skills essentially begin and end with his ability to point the camera at a great actor and hope for the best. Sadly, that technique fell short here.
So, Les Misérables. Did it make me cry? Yes.
Have I been humming “Do You Hear the People Sing” under my breath since I saw it? Yes.
Was it a good film? God no.