Lots of people are gushing – including a close friend of mine who made me promise to write in my blog that she LOVES Les Misérables. She’s talking about the new movie, of course, but since this is my blog, I will add that I think she went into the film predisposed to like it because she loves the show and its exquisite music from her Broadway experiences.
You might say that I was predisposed to like this film, too, because it is a show I have admired and have seen twice in London’s West End over the years. Although musicals are often a tough sell for me (there’s the disclaimer some of you are waiting for), the music in this one is wonderful, and the story’s call for social justice appeals to me, too.
How about Tom Hooper’s film version? Not so appealing to me. I should have been forewarned by the complex preview trailers that tried to inoculate the audience for the quality of the singing by painstakingly explaining how these are unprecedented live vocal performances designed to highlight the acting and emotion of the scene over the singing.
Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work so well. Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), Samantha Barks (Éponine), and especially Eddie Redmayne (Marius) are quite good. Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) gives a nice performance but the singing is a bit spotty at times. Russell Crowe (Javert) is less than uneven.
This is a musical. Singing matters. With a franchise like Les Misérables, casting a singer in the “heavy” role who is less well-known but possesses the voice for the role does not seem to be a financial risk and would have improved the film, especially early on before Seyfried, Barks, and Redmayne show up to breath some life into things.
My other large complaint about the film is tied to the first. Director Tom Hooper uses far too many close-ups (I assume to emphasize the point that these actors are really singing at the moment they are filmed and that is what the viewer hears), but that technique undermines the epic scope of the story. Overall, I don’t find the compositions thoughtful or the lighting, at times, aesthetically engaging. There doesn’t seem to be as high a level of craft evident as I would expect from a big picture like this one.
You might argue with me that this is an intentional choice designed to try pair a “realistic” look with the “realistic” performances. Even if I grant you that, I will still say that it doesn’t work for me. People are bursting into song in the middle of the most tragic, frightening, desperate, and, yes, lovely and transcendent of moments. Realism? Who thinks this is a good idea in the middle of an artificial form of storytelling? Why not capitalize on the artificiality?
I concede that style and genre are not immutable. After all, there is a “realistic” musical that I adore, Once, but that is a spare little film that features characters who are musicians and who play and sing because they are musicians. Most of the earliest musicals are show or stage door musicals in which the characters are rehearsing and performing a show (think of films like Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933) and later films move from this relatively realistic and primitive stage of the genre into more abstract narratives in which characters spontaneously burst into song and dance.
I do like some of the classic musicals but usually because of some attachment from my childhood (State Fair) or because the music, choreography, performances, and design elements are so good that it would be impossible not to appreciate the form (West Side Story). And, there are plenty that I like for a scene or two but don’t want to sit through again any time soon in their entirety (The Sound of Music comes to mind).
In recent years, I have been captivated by some musicals that push the boundaries of the genre and draw me in on multiple levels (Moulin Rouge and Across the Universe are prime examples).
Les Misérables does not rise to that level for me, but it does make me think of several films that serve a purpose that I find valuable and more representative in film versions of musicals like Phantom of the Opera and Rent, which are useful as archival works and bring the musicals to a larger audience than would ever be able to see them in live performances.
For me, Les Misérables would probably have been more successful as a film if Hooper had focused less on having the actors sing in real time than in having them sing at a uniformly high level and focused more on constructing a visual style that better conveys the epic scope of the story with less handheld camera work and the overall hodgepodge of images that show up on screen.
Again, the film is not bad; it is less than I hoped for if not expected.