I’ve made no secret that there were two major releases that came out on Christmas Day of 2012 that I was immensely excited for. One was Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge action epic, and the other was the first big budget cinematic adaptation of Les Misérables, one of the most beloved stage musicals in history. To my dismay, only one of them met my admittedly lofty expectations. And while I’d love to talk about that one, you hardly need my input to tell you to see a Quentin Tarantino movie. But I will anyway: Go see Django Unchained.
Les Misérables, as most know, is based on the Broadway musical adaption of the Victor Hugo novel of the same name. The story takes place in 19th Century France and follows the lives of a collection of characters leading up to the June Rebellion of 1832. Chief among these characters is Jean Valjean, a thief who upon being released from prison is given a new lease on life by a kindly priest. He breaks parole and assumes several new identities over the course of the story, always pursued by the rigid, self-righteous Inspector Javert. Along the way, he takes pity on a dying homeless woman, Fantine, who entrusts her daughter Cosette to his care. He raises her and... well, things go from there; I’m getting dangerously close to summarizing the entire plot, which most of you probably know by this point anyway.
There have already been many movie adaptations of Les Misérables (or Les Miz for the sake of brevity), and this one in particular had a lot going for it. Unlike all previous films, it’s the first to adapt the musical rather than the book itself. So not only were they working with a classic highly revered piece of literature, but also one of the most beloved musicals in Broadway history. They had a stellar cast headed by stage musical veteran Hugh Jackman, whose first role in a film musical has been long overdue, and they had the revolutionary technique of recording the actors singing vocals live on set, rather than having them lip-sync to a soundtrack, something that hadn’t been attempted in nearly 40 years. The whole production practically makes itself. All they needed was for the director not to fail in every way imaginable. But director Tom Hooper somehow managed to do just that.
On a directing level, the film is an absolute disaster. The opening shots are nice and suitably epic, but almost instantly descend into disorienting shaky camerawork with a ridiculous overuse of close-up shots. It truly is network television-level cinematography, but even network television is usually easier to watch than this. Presumably, as is the usual argument for poor handheld camerawork, the intent was to make things more realistic and immediate, and fair enough. Recording live does give the vocals a kind of raw, emotional realism, so making the visuals a match for that is an idea with merit. But such a thing is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and Hooper could not have failed to do so more abysmally.
The editing is also atrocious. This is something that’s always an issue when it comes to adapting a stage musical to the screen. Stage plays are designed to account for breathing room between scenes, as the curtain must close for actors to get in place, sets to be rearranged, etc., whereas a film has no such luxury and must maintain forward momentum scene to scene. Les Miz is especially problematic, as unlike many musicals, it’s not a case of spoken dialogue frequently interrupted by song. In point of fact, there’s virtually no spoken dialogue, with virtually every line sung. These things are very difficult to translate between mediums, and while I appreciate that significant obstacle, countless musical films before have proved it very surmountable, and I’ve yet to see a film fail at it to this degree. The pacing is all over the place, and scene transition is awkward at best. The idea of letting the actors set the tempo though the live recording may help give some excellent performances in the moment, but without the director guiding them with a cohesive vision in mind, the final product will inevitably be a disjointed mess.
The film is not without merit, however. As previously mentioned, the cast is excellent. Although most of the main actors do not come from a stage musical background, they all give excellent performances. Much fuss has been made about Russell Crowe, admittedly the weakest singer to be given a main role, who plays Inspector Javert, but with the deliberately unpolished sound of the vocals, his voice never becomes much of an issue. As you may have heard, the true standout is Anne Hathaway in the role of Fantine. She’s only present in the movie for the first act, but her performance of the famous song “I Dreamed a Dream” is worth the price of admission alone. Anne is nothing short of heartbreaking in the role. She’ll almost certainly receive an Academy Award nomination for this film, and it’s well-deserved. Of course, as I said, she’s gone within the first half hour, so after that you might as well leave and save yourself two and a half hours.