DISCLAIMER: This is not an Anne Hathaway bashfest. I very much enjoy Anne Hathaway as an actress in general and in this movie in particular. So if that is what you have come for, take thyself to the Internet and Google your face off. But while you do ask yourself: why do you hate Anne Hathaway when every complaint leveled against her could be applied equally to Hugh Jackman?
I am a Les Misérables fan. Or at least, I was when I was younger and on my way to full-tilt music theatre nerd. I went through all the stages: Les Miz fanboy, discovering Sondheim, RENT fanboy, Jason Robert Brown fanboy, insufferably pompous “everything that isn’t Sondheim is terrible” ass, and now have landed in a comfortable middle Earth. I do not enjoy every show I see but I love the medium of music theatre (with an “re”) and all it has to offer. It has the power to stink worse than any theatrical presentation, true. But with that capacity to stink comes the ability to surpass any of theatrical presentation if used for good and not evil. I present Avenue Q, The Drowsy Chaperone, In the Heights, and Next to Normal as evidence.
The transition from stage to screen is not an easy one for any musical. They can be clunky (Evita), trite (Grease), or just plain stupid (Paint Your Wagon). But every now and again, a musical adaptation comes along that suits the word to the action and a great film is born: West Side Story, Chicago, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, Hairspray, and (most recently) Sweeney Todd.
Sweeney Todd succeed because the adaptation team (headed by director Tim Burton) took this large stage musical and made it a small film without compromising the story or the characters. This task was not hard, I imagine, because the characters in Sweeney Todd are both fully-drawn and wondrous to behold. They are charming, funny, terrifying, and endowed by their creators with clear motives, desires, and actions.
But what does all this have to do with Les Misérables? A lot, actually. Director Tom Hooper and team clearly had Sweeney Todd in mind when they set out to take the massive semi-opera from the big stage to the big screen. The motto seemed to be: “Strip it down, cut the length, up the realism, and we will have us a great movie.”
On the stage Les Misérables runs roughly two hours and forty-seven minutes. I am basing this length on the three CD Complete Symphonic Recording of the show which I proudly own and am listening to as I type. The film is two hours and thirty-seven minutes counting the ten minutes of credits. That is almost half-an-hour of material to hack away.
Now a film can accomplish things with a quick visual reference that a staged production must explain through dialogue or song. Setting, character’s temperament, etc. So there are redundancies to be sure. But Les Misérables has no spoken dialogue. This is replaced with an opera technique known as “recitative” or semi-sung phrases. A good example happens at the beginning of the film between Jean Valjean and Javert:
JAVERT: Now bring me Prisoner 24601
Your time is up and your parole’s begun
You know what that means?
VALJEAN: Yes, it means I’m free
JAVERT: No, it means you get your yellow ticket of leave
You are a theif
VALJEAN: I stole a loaf of bread
JAVERT: You robbed a house
VALJEAN: I broke a window pain
Recitative is boring on stage but it is a damn killer on screen. Especially when Russell Crowe is one of your “singers” (but more on that later).
So songs are trimmed or cut entirely to save time and the audience is left with a CliffsNotes, greatest hits version of the show. But no big deal, right? They didn’t cut anything crucial, did they?
Plot-wise, no. All the pieces do connect. What suffers are the characters and the stage version of Les Misérables is revealed to be what it is: a spectacle. The characters are archetypes and flat archetypes at that. There are good guys and bad guys. Full stop.
The characters most damaged by this CliffsNotes version are Marius and Cosette. The young couple’s love-at-first-sight story seems silly without the a Broadway proscenium protecting it. But they are not alone. Fantine’s fall from grace and death are so rapid we hardly have time to connect with her before she is dead. Without his Act 2 song “Dog Eat Dog” Thénardier is a just a clown instead of a scary, dangerous thief. Without his verses in “Red and Black” Grantaire is just another student soldier. (Do you even know to whom I am referring?)
I should pause here and say something positive as there are positive things to be said. The production design is gorgeous to look at. It’s gritty realism is at odds with the tone of the musical however and there are moments where set pieces make no sense. Why is the chain gang pulling a ship? Why is Fantine prostituting herself in a ship? Why is there an elephant in the middle of Paris? Why did the students barricade a cul de sac? And did they really need to get covered head-to-toe in filth while crawling through the sewers? All I could think was: Marius wounds are all getting infected. He should die. Or at least get pink eye.
Did I say I was going to be positive?
Many critics have pointed to casting as the principal issue in the film. The Anne Hathaway haters came out in full force when it became clear she would win an Oscar. Russell Crowe’s singing issues are well documented. Hugh Jackman is not large enough to be Valjean. Etc. Etc. Etc. But some of the casting (including Ms Hathaway) is great.
Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are excellent as the Thénardiers. (And further evidence that the Les Misérables team had seen Sweeney Todd as they played Mrs Lovett and Pirelli respectively.) Also the choice to adjust the script making Mme Thénardier the stronger/smarter of the two was a nice touch. But the characters themselves suffer from cuts in the score that reduce them to comic relief and take away their menace. And their menace at the beginning of the show is what makes their final song haunting instead of silly.
Anne Hathaway is very good as Fantine. And, again, she benefits from some rewriting. Placing “I Dreamed a Dream” after “Lovely Ladies” instead straight after she gets fired gives the song more heft. I do not know that she deserves an Oscar for her performance but she certainly deserved one for Rachel Getting Married, so I have no objection.
I also enjoyed Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the leader of the student rebels. His voice was clear and clean and he had the fiery stare of a naïve young man who sees the universe as black and red. And casting Colm Wilkinson (the original Jean Valjean in London and New York) as the Priest was a nice touch.
Jackman is an earnest Valjean. But the songs are at the top of his range and the live singing really makes that obvious. Crowe looks exactly like a Javert but his voice is not suited to the score. But his voice timbre did not bother me as much as Eddie Redmayne’s Marius. Every time he opened his mouth, I cringed.
But the casting issues only point to a larger issue: the direction of this movie is awful.
Tom Hooper and crew apparently decided the one thing everyone hates about movie musicals is people standing still and singing. So the camera is in constant motion. Cuts are frantic and without motivation. Apparently the crew bought a very expensive fish-eye lens as I can think of no other explanation why it is used so frequently. Characters pace, walk in circles, climb stares, anything but stand still and sing.
This most likely cause the frequent cutting since (famously) all the actors sung the film live. But it is hard to sing and walk under the best circumstances. But Les Misérables’s score is quite demanding on its performers. So to create a cohesive soundtrack, frequent cuts were necessary.
This is also most likely why Hooper’s camera is in a constant state of climbing up its actors’ noses. In order to record a high-quality sung performance, the microphone must be near to the actor’s mouth. As a result, the camera must be close to the actor to keep the mic out of the shot. Random dutch angels and fast pull backs into the sky keep the camera’s existence conspicuous and distracting. This, to me, is the worst sin a director can commit.
The hilarious irony here is if there were ever a stage musical that would benefit from a good, old fashioned, over-blown, 3 hour film adaptation featuring lavish sets and stage pieces, it would be Les Misérables. Hooper and Co.’s chosen style for the film show a complete lack of understanding of the source material and what make it successful.
The best moment in the film is “I Dreamed a Dream.” She sits there and (in one, unbroken take) sings a gorgeous song. Her character is revealed at her lowest moment and we empathize. We engage. It is amazing. Contrast this with “Bring Him Home” in which Hugh Jackman walks in circles for no apparent reason and concludes with the camera shooting up into the sky like it is trying to escape.
But there were thirty minutes more to go.