Les Misérables (2012)

This film makes me want to cry in more ways than one. The core story based on Victor Hugo’s novel is a touching story of disgrace, grace and redemption. Even in its crude rendering, I find the story touching. But the consistently poor direction by Tom Hooper and a cast that fails to do justice to Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music result in an adaptation that is a grotesque mockery of the musical’s greatness.

I’m convinced that Tom Hooper watched Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc at some point, admiring the film’s onslaught of oppressive close-ups, and decided to use the same techniques.  While Hooper seems to imitate the style, he fails to recognize how Dreyer uses the limitations of the silent medium to express the experience of the protagonist’s torment through imagery. The problem is that Hooper already has an expression of the inner turmoil of his character: the music.

The result is suffocating. This epic takes place over decades and branches  into the lives of multiple characters over decades, and Hooper insists in shooting it all in close-ups. In Dreyer’s film, the entire focus is on one girl in one moment in history and it works. Here, Hooper strips the texture of context from his characters and takes the audience hostage, shoving these characters as they “sing” their hearts out into the faces of the audience.

Watching the various actors emote while singing these already gut-wrenching and emotional songs results in emotional pornography. Hooper strips these characters of all decorum and distance and shoves bare, raw emotion into the faces of the audience. You want to feel? Here’s all the feeling you could ever want! See Hathaway emote every muscle in her face, see the raw intensity in Jackman’s eyes, feel the screeching agony of every note!

It’s emotionally excessive. The music is prepared to be performed on a stage, to be projected to an audience so that the person on the back row can hear it clearly and feel the impact. Watching this is akin to being on the stage, walking inches away from the performers and staring into their faces. It’s too much.

Compounding this issue is the grimy imagery that cinematographer Danny Cohen and Tom Hooper construct. It’s not enough that there be grit and grim, the audience has to feel the dirtiness of every inch of every frame. It’s so overwhelmingly depressing, dark and muddled that the film is an eye-sour to watch. I had to look away more than once because of the strain it put on my eyes.

Hooper’s use of incessant close-ups wastes the medium of film as a means of exploring this musical visually. In any given moment with any given song, the camera spends almost the entire scene watching the faces of the actors. Most of the songs are people standing there singing while Hooper cuts to various shots of the camera around them.

In contrast, the spinning stage of the musical made almost every number visually interesting to watch because of how it used momentum and movement within many of the numbers. Here, unrestrained by the limitations of a preset stage, the film decides to be more restrictive and limiting visually than the musical. The closest it comes to any sense of flair or movement is the Master of the House sequence. The scene is so out of touch with Hooper’s grotesque and dower interpretation that it comes off as insensitive and tasteless. Another visually interesting idea is when Russell Crowe’s character walks on the edge of a stone wall, a visualization of the fine line he walks in his relentless quest for justice.

But the scene is tarnished by Russell Crowe’s singing. For a musical, this film has a baffling number of poorly performed numbers. One could make the argument Hooper’s vision encompasses an interpretation of the music whereby Jackman, Crowe and Hathaway half sing-half mutter/scream/talk their lyrics. It’s unpleasant and raw, which is a shame because the original music is beautiful. And about halfway through the film, this interpretation of music gets dropped altogether when people who performed the musical on stage enter the film. These veterans sing some notes, they sing loud, they sing clear, they sings their hearts out, because this is a musical, dammit, and you’re going to listen to some damn fine music before you leave this theater!

This stint involves the revolutionary movement of the film is the highlight of the film. Hooper’s terrible direction still persists, but hearing Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne and Aaron Tveit sing this music as intended shows that Hooper’s interpretation ruins what makes the original material compelling. This music works because of the beautiful bitterness of it and these performers let that beauty shine out with each note.  Hooper is so infatuated with the bitterness that he’s repressed so much of the beauty and hopefulness in the music until a talented singer walks on his set and shuts him up with beautiful music. The music, in its full force, bursts forth, and the film is all the better for it.

The audio, which was recorded live on set, lacks the clarity of properly recorded audio. On a set you’re not going to have the consistency of a controlled audio studio environment and I think this makes some audio muffled. Once again, it could be Hooper’s grunginess at work, but the people I went with complained they couldn’t hear the words of the musical clearly, which I think is a fatal mistake.

Also, due to Hooper’s tiny visual vision of the film, a lot of the audio emanates from the front speakers because he shoots everyone straight on for most of the film. I only noticed the audio for the side speakers used effectively in one number. It’s a waste of surround sound, yet another benefit of the film medium that Hooper wastes.

I watched the musical at Queens Theatre in London twice. If you set up a camera and filmed the staged musical head-on, you’d make a more visually interesting and better performed film than Hooper’s Les Miserables. Even despite the butchery done to the musical, I find the story beats affecting and moving. That only makes this film adaptation’s offenses even more egregious. It’s one thing to make something bad, it’s even worse to tarnish something great.

© 2013 James Blake Ewing