Contrary to popular belief, Les Misérables, the eighties stage show from composers Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (and adapted from Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel), is not a great musical. Certainly, there are a lot of great moments inherent in the spectacle, complex and magnetic characters and songs that could have launched the show to Broadway and international prominence even if the proceedings had been entirely plotless. But with all that said, Les Misérables is also hopelessly flawed. It’s too long, for one thing; the sung-through aesthetic gets tiring and hard-to-follow quickly, a gimmick meant to preserve the operatic quality of the source material, but one that limits the audience and stunts the power of the truly great musical moments; there are too many characters, with all but a few of them never getting as much stage time or development as they deserve; and perhaps most annoyingly, the composers take such an overbearing angle with Hugo’s themes (those of redemption, holy salvation, love, social injustice, moral and societal duty, etc.) that less enthralled audience members will feel consistently pounded over the head with them. Sure, the musical theatre genre has never been known for being overly profound, but with Les Mis, subtlety isn’t even in the auditorium.
Enter Tom Hooper, a relatively inexperienced television director who struck gold with his third feature film (2010’s The King’s Speech), winning Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. That breakout success earned Hooper a $61 million budget and the task of adapting Les Misérables from stage to screen, and the result, a predictably larger-than-life all-star spectacle, hit theaters on Christmas Day. The cast is somewhat interesting, pairing titanic film presences (Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway) with Les Mis vets (a lovely Samantha Barks, who reprises the tragic role of Eponine that she played in London’s West End production, as well as in the show’s 25th anniversary concert). The whole thing centers around Hugh Jackman, a Tony-award winning Broadway performer turned movie star who bears the majority of the show’s heavy lifting as kindhearted ex-convict, Jean Valjean.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cast is a mixed bag, and the film’s overall quality follows suit. Some of the publicity-grabbing casting decisions pay off beautifully: Hathaway is particularly transcendent as Fantine, a poverty-stricken mother who turns to prostitution in attempt to provide for her daughter, Cosette (later played by an ineffective and superfluous Amanda Seyfried). When Hathaway sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” one of the show’s signature numbers, Hooper focuses his camera singularly on her face, never breaking the take, and she nails it. What the actress lacks in vocal training, she makes up for in sheer conviction, committing herself physically and emotionally to the song’s heart-shattering narrative and delivering a performance that, in four minutes, encompasses more raw feeling than I’ve seen on screen in ages. The scene is almost uncomfortable in its intimacy, transforming the song into the sort of confessional it could never have been onstage and providing a tear-jerking gem that rightfully guarantees Hathaway her first Oscar. It’s an emotional peak for a film that should have many of them, but none of Hathaway’s fellow cast members ever reach that level of visceral force again, and the film suffers as a result.
Much has been made of Hooper’s decision to let his cast sing their roles live on set, opting for dramatic authenticity rather than for note-perfect studio re-creations of the show’s music. The decision usually works, eliminating the auto-tune heavy, computerized sound that has characterized many film musicals of the modern era (call it the Glee effect) and allowing the actors to perform freely and spontaneously as if they were actually embroiled in a stage production. Hooper’s style, though, is too one-note: while his choice to capture each facial expression turns Hathaway’s pivotal scene into a tour-de-force, that same stylistic decision strangles the grandeur and sweep of the production. Case-in-point is “One Day More,” the stirring ensemble number that serves as the grand finale for the stage show’s first act. Onstage, the song is one of the definitive moments in all of musical theatre, an anthem that brings crowds to their feet and sends souls flying toward the rafters. In the film, the song feels limp, cutting from ensemble member to ensemble member with no consistency or cohesion. When you see this song in the theatre, every member of the company is spread across the stage, supposedly divided by distance, but with all of their disparate storylines and concerns coalescing into something sublimely moving and communal. In the film, the segment feels like an awkward collection of disconnected scenes, a problem only emphasized by the live singing aesthetic and Hooper’s insatiable desire to focus exclusively on his actor’s faces. And the lack of intermission after the scene only renders it less effective.
The other problem is Hooper’s unyielding devotion to the source material. While fans would have cried outrage if the filmmakers had chosen to liberally trim musical numbers or, more drastically, if they had converted the show’s messy sung-through structure into dialogue, either choice would have ultimately resulted in a better film. Much of the story’s exposition and development plays out in awkward recitative singing, and for this cast at least (especially for lesser-trained players like Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried), those moments border on comical. Jackman and Crowe are both terrific actors, but neither get to take their dramatic chops as far as I would have liked. Jackman, an experienced showman, does well enough (and will likely earn an Oscar nomination for his duty of carrying the film), but even he would have been better served by legitimate chunks of dialogue. After all, he’s a baritone playing one of the most sought after tenor roles in the musical theatre repertoire, and while he hits the notes and performs the songs well, he doesn’t have the vocal range or sensitivity that the role requires (see “Bring Him Home,” another one of the show’s most revered songs). When Colm Wilkinson—the Valjean in both the original London and Broadway productions—cameos as a kindly bishop, giving Jackman a second chance at a free life, it’s a glorious moment, a passing of the torch from one generation to the next and a gleeful reference for longtime fans of the show. And while Jackman is never less than a joy to watch, in that one scene at least, I wished that Hooper had found a Valjean who could rival Wilkinson in sheer musical ability and presence, movie star or not.
But is this Les Mis worth seeing? Absolutely. There are some really, really great things here: Hathaway’s unforgettable performance alone is worth the price of admission, and when Hooper lets his camera soar away from his actors, the film is gorgeous, loaded with some of the most beautiful sets and vistas captured by anyone in 2012. On the whole though, the production carries the flaws of the original musical and makes them more pronounced. Rest assured, you will feel each and every one of these 158 minutes, all building to a final half hour that is the definition of “interminable slog.” But even despite my reservations, even though it still makes no sense to me that the story goes on for so long after its climax, even though there are whole characters and scenes that I would just as soon delete from the proceedings (the Sacha Baron Cohen and Helen Bonham Carter characters, intended to be the show’s comic relief, are never anything more than irritating) and despite the fact that I am clearly not a Les Mis purist (some fans would surely crucify me for even suggesting the addition of dialogue), the triumphant moments here outweigh the dull ones, and it would have been impossible for me to leave the theater without feeling at least a little bit moved. It’s a far cry from the best film of the year (something that probably won’t hurt its Best Picture chances), but Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is still, somehow, a cinematic experience worth having.