I have been a devoted lover of the musical Les Miserables since I was about eight years old. I would often sing “The Confrontation” with my brother and sister for my grandmother (when I was nine), and have since seen it on stage twice. I know almost every song by heart, and consider it to be one of the greatest musicals ever made. Naturally, news of a film adaptation of the stage play, directed by Tom Hooper, piqued my interest, though it also exposed my bias. The comparison of the film to the stage play, particularly the Original Broadway Cast Recording, is inevitable, but I think it allows those who have seen it on stage provide a unique approach to criticizing it.
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The plot hasn’t changed in its transition from stage to screen: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), imprisoned for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread and a subsequent escape attempt, is paroled by Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After breaking parole and eventually becoming mayor of a small town under the new name of Monsieur Madeleine, Valjean makes a promise to Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a fired factory worker forced into prostitution, that he would look after her daughter Cosette, who lives with the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a pair of swindling innkeepers. Meanwhile, Javert learns Valjean’s true identity and vows to capture him. Nine years later, the students and poor of Paris are planning an uprising following the death of General Lamarque, led by Enjorlas (Aaron Tveit) and joined by Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), the latter of whom falls in love with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), much to the chagrin of his friend Eponine (Samantha Barks), who is in love with him. As Javert continues to hunt down Valjean, the students prepare for the rebellion as Marius seeks out Cosette.
This, of course, doesn’t do the plot justice, but then, neither does the film. Hooper, not content with providing anything resembling genuine exposition, opted to pluck the musical straight from the stage and transport it to the screen; there is no program to refer to when watching the movie. Expository scenes are performed in song – poorly – and seemingly created solely to make the film more comparable to the stage production, while important characters, such as Enjorlas, are relegated to the background in favor of the two main storylines. It just doesn’t work, and it’s horribly awkward to see them sing lines that should have been spoken.
This is all compounded by Hooper’s bizarre direction, which provides a lesson in how not to frame a shot. Poignant songs are met with extreme close-ups, severely weakening the scope of the film and, although strange on the face of it, actually diminishing the emotion that would be found in the stage performances. Perhaps it could be seen as an attempt to emulate the experience of viewing it on the smaller stage, but all it did was suck out any power the song might have had.
The majority of the characters were woefully miscast, namely Russell Crowe’s weak portrayal of Javert. Sounding as if he’s singing through a raging sinus infection, he lacks the imposing nature of the man, singing his parts with a sort of blaise approach that makes it sound horribly forced. His best onscreen moments come during duets or ensemble pieces, wherein his voice is relegated more to the background rather than taking the spotlight, such as in “Stars” or “Javert’s Suicide,” both of which lack the emotional punch necessary for such a strong and important character. His one truly shining moment comes during “The Confrontation,” wherein he shares a duet with Jackman that serves as one of the more exciting moments of the film.
On his own, Jackman tries his hardest, but ultimately falls into the same camp as Crowe; this, however, has less to do with Jackman’s inability to bring to the character the strength and wisdom found on stage and almost everything to do with the decision to employ live singing. While it does allow the actors to actually act while they sing (rather than just sing the pieces over pre-recorded tracks), it also results in an uneven blend of the two. The individual highs and lows, the crescendos and valleys of the song are left up to the interpretation of the actors, which in turn severely diminishes their intended impact. While this isn’t to say it’s all bad – Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” was incredible, while Barks’ Eponine is arguably the closest the film ever got to emulating the musical – it resulted in a hodgepodge of scenes that never find their footing. Songs ended abruptly while others were truncated, resulting in uneven performances and scenes that become all but completely stripped of the power found in their stage counterparts.
A perfect example of this is found in the screen time shared by Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who played Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier. Having fully made the leap from light-hearted and mostly comedic swindlers in the musical to caricatures better suited for a Tim Burton production, they managed to turn one of the most recognizable pieces from the musical – “Master of the House” – into something instantly forgettable. Cohen’s faux-French accent bordered on offensive, with his performance focused less on villainy than on comic relief; any opportunity to reveal him as a true villain – “The Attack on Rue Plumet” and “Dog Eat Dog” – is either edited heavily or missing entirely, presumably to fit Hooper’s interpretation of the characters. We’re left with cartoonish characters sporting garish make-up and costuming that doesn’t fit in with the aesthetic put forth by the Parisian Uprising.
I fully admit to exhibiting a modicum of bias in my overall assessment of the film, specifically the music, but Hooper’s direction and the decision to eschew an actual story for a near-carbon copy of the pacing found in the stage musical does little to overshadow the mostly phoned-in and forced performances. It’s an experiment gone horribly wrong.
I did tear up during “A Little Fall of Rain” though, but then, I always do.