“Cosette, I don’t know what to say,” sings selfless firebrand Marius in the dramatic Romeo and Juliet style love song “A Heart Full of Love”. A delightful and talented actress once told me that a musical is an experience so intense that words cannot adequately express the emotion of the moment – the play, or in this case, film, must ascend to a higher plane, a musical one, to evince the proper sentiment. If that’s so, then Les Misérables is a dismal failure. The characters are so thin and listless that they have trouble finding interesting things to say to each other, let alone finding an excuse to sing them. Time-honored and oft-performed, it’s strange that a musical as grand and opulent as Les Miz, which is based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, would lack emotional depth.
Characters are introduced haphazardly, but few are developed and the miseries of the expansive cast of characters are often only evidenced by gaudily theatrical show-not-tell exposition. Tom Hooper, who helmed The King’s Speech with so much visual subtlety, here drenches each scene in its own greatness. It is not that he belabors each theme and character arc so much as shabbily hammers the pure, saccharine, unjustified “emotion” of each moment into our woebegotten skulls with the anvil of an overemoting all-star cast. Regardless of which side of the barricade a critic happens to be, it’s generally agreed that Les Misérables is one of the worst-directed films of the year. The resplendent sets and special effects surely cost millions, and yet Hooper refuses to showcase his actors in anything but a close-up, and a shaky cam one at that. Hooper’s small bag of cinematic tricks tire when repeated endlessly over the agonizing 157 minute run time, with the Backpedaling Close-Up Tight Shot of Hugh Jackman Walking At the Camera Dramatically among the biggest offenders.
Much has been tra-la-lad of Hooper’s decision to force actors to sing live to the camera instead of dubbing the vocals in post production. It was clearly the filmmakers’ intent to ground the film in a sense of realism, which at least explains the shaky cam, a pestilential trend in modern cinema that’s strangely rationalized as more realistic, though I have never heard tell of anyone who suffers from incessant visual seizures. The controversial decision is not so much a painful error in judgment as it is a curious misinterpretation of the story itself. Why is Hooper calling for realism in a Parisian-set romantic musical spanning decades brimming with love, loss, and weepie melodrama? With such an unabashedly majestic yarn, why on earth does this film think it should look and sound like an entry in the mumblecore canon?
The actors trudge through the cinematic sewers as best they can, though Les Miz‘s dull sung-through dialogue eliminates much of any potential for traditional acting. Many have sung Hugh Jackman’s praise for his gravitas-filled performance as the righteous hero Jean Valjean. While Jackman may mug the most in the cast, his strength as a singer and entertainer ultimately turn out a solid performance. Poor Russell Crowe has enough trouble acting, singing is quite beyond him. The actor’s vocal range is almost as narrow as the range of facial expressions he sports. Gone is the spark of intelligence and passion seen in L.A. Confidential, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind; all of Crowe’s most recent performances – especially as the supposedly fierce police captain Javert – seem weary and flat. Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks play a trio of young revolutionary lovers introduced halfway through the film, and as such are among the least developed characters in the cast. Redmayne and Barks, at least, make up for their respective roles’ shortcomings by belting out numbers with passion and transparent talent. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen appear intermittently as nasty, impoverished pests of innkeepers who swindle their guests. The duo’s first song, “Master of the House”, is a great showcase of the pair’s abilities, but subsequent appearances seem like unnecessary diversions.
The film’s laurels rest entirely on Anne Hathaway’s performance of “I Dreamed a Dream”. And my, what a performance it is! Here alone does Tom Hooper’s decision to film entirely in close-up pay off – every note and every pained expression is absolutely wrenching. For these transcendent three minutes, the film is alive with a magnificently thumping heart. But three minutes does not a movie make.
Les Miz could have been the crowning cap in Tom Hooper’s career, which is sure to flourish in the next decade. Why did he choose to incinerate their chances with poor cinematography, poor editing, and poor sound editing decisions? This film strives for realism, but it is so wrongheaded and incompetent that it comes across as laziness. It certainly makes me feel rather misérable, but not in the way the filmmakers dreamed.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★ (4/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Overdirected, overemoted, overlong, overstuffed, and overwrought, I sat in the theater waiting for this latest incarnation of Les Miz to be over. Anne Hathaway alone transcends the film’s dull despair.