Starting life as a novel by Victor Hugo in 1862, Les Misérables was subsequently transformed into a lavish stage musical in 1980, and in the decades to follow it has been performed countless times, even picking up eight Tony Awards following its Broadway debut in 1987. It’s a theatre mainstay, and its reputation speaks for itself. But as a movie – or, more specifically, as this movie directed by Tom Hooper – Les Misérables is awful. It shouldn’t be hard to make a great film out of the source material, yet Hooper and the cavalcade of screenwriters managed to fuck it up, and the product is a wasted opportunity considering the talent and budget. It’s a through-and-through slog, a borderline unwatchable piece of shit that stands as one of 2012’s worst movies. Even Paranormal Activity 4 was better than this.
Set in the 19th century, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has endured years of hard labour as punishment for a loaf of bread he once stole. At long last released from prison on parole, Valjean sets out to make a new life for himself, but is pursued by police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), who’s determined to once more imprison the ex-con. Reinventing himself under the new identity of Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean encounters lowly prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who’s on the verge of death and has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). Following Fantine’s demise, Valjean rescues Cosette from the clutches of her wicked guardians (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), and raises her as his own. Years later, Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) falls in love with student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who plans to take part in an uprising against the British monarchy.
To say the least, the narrative of Les Misérables is labyrinthine and convoluted, requiring a skilful touch in order for it to work. Unfortunately, this picture is stuck with Hooper, who’s not cut out for the project. None of the characters rise above one-dimensional throughout the punishing 160-minute runtime, which is a huge problem since there are so many of them and our investment in the story is reliant upon our desire to watch them succeed. Character relationships are particularly unformed and superficial, most notably the love between Cosette and Marius that comes out of nowhere and makes no impact. Meanwhile, Javert’s efforts to recapture Valjean simply makes him look like a lonely man with nothing else to live for. It might work on stage, but in a motion picture it seems silly, and a late scene involving Javert comes off in hugely bad taste because Hooper seems to judge the character, telling us that he’s a cardboard villain who deserves to die a horrific death. The problem is that there’s no downtime between the songs; it’s on all the time, denying us the little character moments necessary to properly develop these people. If the intention was to develop them through the songs, Hooper failed. With absolutely no depth to anything that happens, Les Misérables is a strained, meandering watch devoid of emotional oomph.
The big gimmick of Les Misérables is the well-promoted fact that the performers actually sung the tunes live on-set, rather than lip-syncing to pre-recorded tunes. Reportedly, the creative decision was to strip theatricality out of the production, rendering this musical raw and realistic. But musicals aren’t realistic in the slightest, as nobody in real life spontaneously sings while backed by a sweeping orchestra. Without the sense of well-rehearsed theatricality, Les Misérables feels utterly lackadaisical and drab, ironically keeping us more at arm’s length. It’s a problem that 99% of the spoken words in the movie are sung, because none of the tunes are memorable. You will not come away from the movie humming any tunes or singing any lyrics; in fact barely any of the songs actually register as songs. Hooper’s approach in itself is not flawed in theory, but the execution is outright catastrophic, without so much as a modicum of visual flair or style.
It would seem that a lot of the big issues with Les Misérables stem from the ugly cinematography. Indeed, the compositions here are either woefully pedestrian or downright wrong-headed. The art of cinema facilitates close-ups that aren’t possible on stage, allowing us to get closer to the actors and see their nuanced performances. Hooper clearly knew that fact, because that’s literally all he does, for more or less every single song that’s performed. The effect is disastrous, making for an oddly claustrophobic experience despite the ostensibly large scope. Worse, Hooper and director of photography Danny Cohen display little understanding of such basic principals as head room and looking room, making this a definitive masterclass in how not to shoot a movie. Bafflingly, too, there’s no sense of grandeur or majesty to the movie. Whereas musicals like Sweeney Todd feature brilliant dolly and crane shots that keep us under the filmmaker’s thoughtful spell, Hooper’s handheld compositions look rushed and half-hearted, with actors even going out of focus on a constant basis. The fact that the actors performed the songs live meant that the best musical take had to be used, technical merits of the take notwithstanding. At one stage, Jackman actually bumps into the camera, which destroys the illusion. With the picture being shot digitally, Les Misérables looks like a cheap BBC production, though there are several made-for-TV period movies that look more majestic than this (see 1984’s A Christmas Carol).
The actors, bless their hearts, give it their all, but are ultimately let down by the painfully mediocre filmmaking surrounding them. Hathaway is in a league of her own, generating the movie’s sole moments of genuine emotional pathos with her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream. The actress received a lot of attention and acclaim, and she deserves it, making it all the more unfortunate that Hooper keeps the camera so close the entire time, failing to do anything visually interesting with her performance. Jackman similarly commits to the film as Valjean; his singing is marvellous, and he conveys emotion extraordinarily well. On the other hand, Russell Crowe has a tough time with Javert – his voice is better suited for rock music (he is in a rock band, after all). As a result, a lot of Crowe’s singing is noticeably flat. The only other actors who make an impression are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, providing some outstanding comical relief.
A $60 million Les Misérables movie has no business being this cold and detached, but that’s exactly what Tom Hooper manages to do. His understated style worked for The King’s Speech, but he’s positively lost here. Les Misérables alternates between tediously boring, ludicrously amateurish, and halfway interesting, the latter of which is mainly thanks to Anne Hathaway, who’s gone after the first half-hour.