Les Miserables is proof of how a film that should lend itself somewhat easily to film can fail so spectacularly. The film is grandiose in scope, and in what it tried to accomplish with the use of live singing, but it seems that director Tom Hooper abandoned acting and narrative for the singing alone. There are a few standouts in this three-hour opus, but they’re few and far between. The film is epic, but it will frustrate audiences both of the play and of the novel, as well as fans hoping for a crisp story.
French convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) plays a game of cat-and-mouse with the officer Javert (Russell Crowe) who vows to take him down. In Valjean’s life he meets the destitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and brings up her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his own.
As a fan of the musical I had high expectations for this film, and only a few were met. The film feels sufficiently grandiose with the large-scale sets, and sweeping wide shots director Tom Hooper employs (yes there are wide shots for those who have heard the movie is all in close-up). When the barricade is created, the film pans upward to show the scope of the village and where, in conjunction with the soldiers, everyone is. The barricade itself feels puny, but thankfully the rest of the film feels larger, particularly the opening where Valjean and a group of prisoners pull a massive ship during a storm. The two acting stand-outs are Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne as Fantine and Marius respectively, but Samantha Barks and Amanda Seyfried are also good. If Hathaway doesn’t secure an Oscar for this I’m losing all faith in the Academy. Her portrayal of Fantine is shocking, heart-breaking, and haunting. She isn’t in the film for very long, but she makes more of an impact than any other character in this film. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” which is filmed in close-up, is beautiful and will leave you bawling. Redmayne himself casts a more dominant figure than either Jackman or Crowe. His performance of the idealistic revolutionary Marius is strong, and his singing outshines any of the men.
The reliance on the actors to dictate how things will be done ends up being to Tom Hooper’s, and the films, detriment. It’s been documented that the actors sang live, and were able to dictate the tempo of the songs and the camera placement. This idea of letting the inmates run the asylum ends up leaving the actors to fall flat on their singing, and keep the camera constantly moving. The worst singer is Russell Crowe, and he will go down as being the predominant reason this film fails. There are Broadway level actors here, but Crowe proves that name recognition went above talent. His role as Javert has all the force of a wet noodle. You never fear him, or feel he’s a worthy foe to Jackman. When Crowe sings every ending ends flat and his delivery sounds so muddied you never understand his character because you can’t understand him. This happens with other performances too, especially Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. The actors who aren’t knowledgeable about stagecraft end up singing so weakly that jokes or character development that are in the lyrics can’t be understood by the audience. Other actors like Jackman sing too high and the songs never build up to anything.
I mentioned camera placement, and that’s another issue as you feel the cameraman doesn’t know where to point the camera. Both Crowe and Jackman have big show-stopping numbers, but can’t stand still! The camera is either swirling around them, or pacing back and forth with the actors. It’s not understandable why the actors couldn’t stand still as all the movement makes one seasick. Ultimately, neither Jackman nor Crowe are compelling enough to hold the three-hour runtime. Once the film shifts to the barricade and Redmayne’s story, he’s the only competent leading man to hold onto because he is able to sing and act.
The film’s runtime also feels unnecessary. Songs don’t have any room to breathe before immediately moving to the next one. As a fan of the play, I know there are a lot of songs here, but the film feels so desperate to shove in all the music the narrative becomes confusing unless you really know the plot already. To add insult to injury, the film adds one new song, entitled “Suddenly,” that feels out of place because the writers of the original musical were writing so many decades after the play. It’s an unnecessary song that doesn’t convey any emotion that isn’t seen well before or after it.
Tom Hooper seems to have bit off more than he can chew. The narrative of Les Miserable is forsaken for song quantity, and flashy names. The acting from the two leads is sub par, and the singing (from Crowe especially) is mediocre. The film is a sweeping epic, and probably the most grandiose version of the play we’ll get, but there are filmed adaptations of the play that will please true fans more.