Wednesday, December 26, 2012

movie review: 'les miserables'

No, I haven't seen The Hobbit yet. Or Skyfall. Or Argo. Or Lincoln. Or Django Unchained. Yeah, I went to see the big 'epic' movie on the big epic musical instead, and you can all shut up about it, okay? Good.

Now, it's something of a routine when discussing film adaptations of books, tv, video games, stage musicals - hell, anything - to first clarify what one thinks of the source material. And considering Les Miserables is adapted from a stage musical based upon a good albeit ponderously long and at points excruciating novel written by Victor Hugo, I think I need to clarify at least my stance when it comes to the Broadway show, which was one of the most iconic of the 1980s and emblematic of the 'epic musical'. Les Miserables is a gargantuan Broadway show spanning several hours, multiple decades of history, a cast of dozens of characters, and took place on a gigantic spinning stage several meters in diameter. And while I've never seen the show live, I have heard multiple renditions of the entire score and soundtrack that have been produced over the years. And my opinion out of that?

The stage musical Les Miserables is good. But it is not great.

Part of the problem is the source material - Victor Hugo's mammoth tome could probably only be properly adapted in a full-length TV miniseries, and even I would argue the musical does it best to capture the varied personalities and tones and themes for which Hugo was going. But in terms of narrative pacing, Les Miserables the stage musical is a mess, culminating in an ending that is stodgy, arduous, and goes on way too long. And while I will say there are elements of the musical that are impressive and epic, technically there are elements of the songs in Les Miserables that have always irked me, where there are points the lyrical meter isn't as smooth or flowing or organic as it could be. Yes, there are points where you can overlook the lyrical clumsiness because goddamn it, Les Miserables is going for broad and epic and sweeping and you get sucked along with the tide and it's glorious... but at other points, it feels clumsy and jerky and not particularly elegant. Musically, it's most apparent in the use of the shitty grating synth keyboard most of the stage adaptations used, but thankfully later stage adaptations and the movie excised this element.

So, enough yammering around the issue: what do I think of Les Miserables, the movie?

Well, I'll be blunt: the movie Les Miserables is good. But it is not great.

First, let me cast praise where praise is due, as the movie actually does improve on a few elements from the musical, mostly in terms of narrative pacing. The ending, for instance, is still a little draggy and long, but it fits significantly better. The orchestration throughout the entire musical is gorgeous, and fit the scenes perfectly. The costuming is superb, and the set design is excellent, giving the scenes of 1800s France real character and humanity - for the most part (I'll come back to this). And, much to my shock, the action is actually really fucking good, shot with a lot of energy but still coherently framed. And there's a surprising amount of blood for a film that's got a PG rating, and I was very pleased they preserved the sharp uncouth language from the stage production, to say nothing of the darker themes. 

And make no mistake, if you're a fan of the musical, this movie is probably the most faithful and tight adaptation of the show you're ever going to get. Nearly every song is preserved (with some lyrics cut down, but I'd argue it fits the flow of the piece), and while the order is somewhat shuffled, there are points I'd argue this shuffling only improved matters. And hell, I didn't even find the length objectionable. Sure, it was long, but if you know any of the original source material, you have to know the only way to capture the thing properly is keep a lot of the material from the musical in - it's not going to make sense otherwise.

And even in the casting - one of the areas of which I was most worried - Les Miserables delivered (once again, for the most part - I'll come back to this). Hugh Jackman isn't the perfect Jean Valjean, but damn it if he doesn't work his ass off trying to clinch the one chance at an Oscar nomination he'll get. Amanda Seyfried completely owns the part of Cosette and actually displays some surprising vocal range I didn't know she had. Samantha Barks plays Eponine with the same emotional intensity she brought in the West End production, and given I'm not a fan of her character in the musical, I was surprised how much I liked her here. And speaking of roles I didn't expect to like, Eddie Redmayne plays Marius with way more depth and character than I was expecting, and he easily starts stealing the show at points of the production. Of course, he doesn't steal the show as much as Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, who is pretty much perfect as the hardened would-be revolutionary. And while I do think Sacha Baron Cohen wasn't quite slimy enough to nail Thenarnier, I still think he and Helena Bonham Carter are great in their parts and have a lot of great comedic energy. I think it's a bit of a shame they cut 'Dog Eat Dog', Thenarnier's gloriously dark number in the third act, but frankly, I'm not sure Sacha Baron Cohen could have brought the requisite menace to truly make the song as bleak and wretched as it needed to be. 

And it must be said that Anne Hathaway is fucking amazing as Fantine. She's going to get an Oscar nomination for her performance here, and she's got a good shot at winning it too, namely because this is the sort of incredible emotional performance that does a lot to elevate a character that never really has a lot of screentime in the musical, yet still manages to make a major impact. It's the best I've seen Hathaway do in a long, long time, and I've got to say that she added a lot to elevate this movie.

But even with all of the praise I've heaped on this movie, there's a reason I called it good, not great. But unlike most cases, this is one I can easily break down into one main problem: director Tom Hooper. Basically, all of the real problems with Les Miserables can be traced back to him, and he's ultimately the reason this film doesn't work nearly as well as it could.

To explain this, let's begin by talking about the one character I didn't mention in my casting discussion above: Russell Crowe as Javert (which, I should note, is my favourite character from the stage musical). I can say from the beginning that I was concerned about his casting - not because Crowe is a bad actor (he's not), but because his singing style really doesn't fit the film. He sings like he's fronting an adult alternative band rather than the gloriously epic baritone he needs to bring to the table, but I will admit there are signs that Crowe could have pulled it off. In 'The Confrontation', a duet where he and Jackman duel, Crowe's singing gets a lot better, as he actually sounds like he's delivering some of that visceral big emotion. It's evidence that's he's capable of singing the part, but for the rest of the film, it sounds like he's on autopilot, completely lacking in emotion and energy, not to mention the raw contempt he needs to add necessary grit to his delivery. I don't think he would have been great (you could have gotten Gerard Butler - a much cheaper actor who actually can deliver that sort of energy and since he was in Playing For Keeps, he clearly had nothing better to do), but Crowe could have been pushed to give a better performance than he did. And in that case, you can blame the director for that, not pulling that stronger, more emotive performance free.

I mentioned that Gerard Butler would have been a cheaper alternative to Russell Crowe, and here's where we run into the second part of my argument: Les Miserables is a film that ran out of money. Make no mistake, there are several shots that are grand and sprawling and sweeping and epic - but then there are parts of the film that look cheap and entirely too small. The biggest example of this is the barricade scenes, where the students flee from 'Do You Hear The People Sing', a gorgeously epic number delivered with hundreds of extras and a perfect location for the barricade (a barricade you see in the finale of the film)... to a secluded alleyway where the barricade is barely fifteen feet high. It looks small and feels small, particularly in comparison to the stage musical barricade, and nothing at this point of Les Miserables should feel close to small. The only conclusion that springs to mind is that they ran out of money and couldn't afford to set up more shots of the larger barricade, which, to be blunt, would have looked a hell of a lot better than the tiny one they ended up using.

And that's not the only evidence of a lack of money, because it comes through in the cinematography, and here's where I finally have to bring the hammer down on Tom Hooper - because while there are moments of shining brilliance in his direction of Les Miserables - for the most part in composite shots and the occasional panoramic camera sweep - at most points you can tell he has no goddamn idea how to properly frame the shots to have the grandoise weight the musical needed. The biggest issue appears in several of the solo musical numbers, where the camera is way too close to the actors' faces and it doesn't fucking shift, or if it does, it moves to a second solitary shot and then shifts back. I wanted to love Anne Hathaway's 'I Dreamed A Dream' so much more than I did, which was delivered with a ton of raw emotional intensity that shows Hathaway selling the fuck out of this number - but Tom Hooper's camera is zoomed so close to her face that it's the only thing on screen for almost the entire song! No shots of her location, no shots of her moving or walking around - just a long, uncomfortably close shot of her face when zooming back to show more or moving the goddamn camera would have worked so much better. And this happens in nearly every solo number in the show with the solitary exception of 'Stars', which had all sorts of sweeping camera gymnastics that didn't disguise the fact Russell Crowe wasn't singing the song properly in the slightest!

And yeah, I get why Hooper's doing this, or at least how he'd justify it - with the close-ups he's trying to show every nuance of the emotion on the character's faces, and that's thoroughly tough acting on the part of everyone (namely because very few people look good singing and selling emotion on one's face for an entire musical number is even harder). But my issue is that the shots are so close and unvaried and lacking in cinematic energy to add to the musical numbers and the actors' performances that they completely took me out of the experience. I start asking questions: why isn't Hooper moving the camera? Is he trying to hide something from me - perhaps cheaper sets or a total lack thereof - behind the incredibly tight focus, or is he just utterly incompetent? Either way, this guy is an Oscar-winning director (wrongly so, I'd add, but I'm not the biggest fan of anything in the 'King's Speech' with the exception of Colin Firth's performance), and I was shocked to see such sloppy direction. 

Now there are great epic moments that Les Miserables the movie nails. 'Who Am I', 'The Confrontation', almost all of the numbers with Marius and the other students, even the finale managed to surprise me and actually earn the chill that raced down my spine. And really, all the parts were in place (well, Crowe's iffy, obviously) for this movie to be the glorious, Oscar-deserving masterpiece that its pedigree would deserve. But Tom Hooper's haphazard and occasionally shitty direction knocks this movie off a pedestal, leaving it only good instead of great. 

I'm going to be honest, I really wanted to like this movie, and for the most part, I do. And while it's probably the best film adapted from the musical that we'll ever get, it's not a classic, and that's disappointing, to say the least. But overall, if you're a fan of the show and you're up for one hell of a ride, Les Miserables won't disappoint.


  1. I hardly think this movie 'ran out of money'. The small barricade was supposed to be that sad and wimpy, showing that Les Amis des ABC had absolutely no hope of success. The larger barricade at the finale takes place in a paradise where all of Paris rose up alongside them... Like... You say you went in to it giving it a chance, but you critique things that really don't need critiquing?

  2. Okay, I figure I should explain my POV on this, because yes, it turns out the barricade really was rather small in actuality and the movie aptly represented that.

    But here's my issue - when you juxtapose shots of this massive towering barricade which aptly resembles the one in the stage show with this tiny one, it immediately prompts questions, particularly because the way Hooper shot the scenes, that the little barricade should look just as good as the big one - and it doesn't. So in comparison of the all of the sweeping, grand shots early on, you have this pathetic barricade and very few broader shots of the location, my mind immediately raises the question that the barricade should look better than it does. Thus, my thinking that it seems like the movie may have ran out of money at some point.