Les Miserables 57

I didn’t listen.

I read plenty about Les Misérables before seeing it this week.  And despite receiving plenty of warning, I went in expecting to enjoy it.  After all, I had not read the book or seen the musical staged.  I figured its critics surely had seen better productions, but a novice like myself would love the source material, even if it was simply a mediocre adaptation.

But Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a shockingly poor film.  There are plenty of nits to pick — Russell Crowe seems hopelessly miscast as the policeman Javert, the film’s love story is hasty and better suited for the tradition of the stage, etc. — but the biggest problem of all is Hooper’s direction.

If you’ve seen previews for Les Misérables, you surely expected a grand and sweeping film.  And while there are a few shots that communicate such an epic production (almost all of them used in said previews, naturally), Hooper mostly positions the camera directly in front of his cast.  Prepare to familiarize yourself with Russell Crowe’s goatee hairs, Anne Hathaway’s teeth and Hugh Jackman’s pores.

Admittedly, this is an interesting approach, but it quickly becomes evident that it’s simply clashing with the material.  The actors all seem to approach differently, to boot: some play for the back row, while others dial it in.  But the camera treats them all the same: there’s nowhere to hide in Les Misérables.

Hathaway’s performance of Fantine’s “I Dreamed A Dream” — which might very well win her an Oscar — emerges unscathed, if only because it might be the only scene that demands the treatment that Hooper applies to the entire film.  Fantine is trapped and alone, cut to her lowest, and the camera doesn’t cut away from her during the film’s best five minutes.

This scene comes early, however, and has no counterpart in the film’s 157 minutes.  “One Day More” is a rousing vocal performance, but Hooper’s constant cutting from close-up to close-up only communicates that the cast’s performance surely comes together much easier (and I imagine much more beautifully) on stage than in a film that has no sense of its own scope.

What’s ultimately shocking about Les Misérables is how it made it this far.  How could no one have said “No!”?  I certainly understand that musical adaptations can be cut-and-dry.  I’m not opposed to bold choices.  But this seems like a bold choice chosen before the source material, rather than one born of the material itself.