The most formidable enemy to Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is Tom Hooper. This production takes some of the most beloved source material of all time and marries to it a breathtakingly talented cast. All Hooper would have to do is point and shoot, and this could have been the greatest success of the year.
Alas. Hooper makes himself felt in every scene, his direction so loud and palpable that it cannot be ignored except in the most powerfully acted moments. His camera is haphazard, aimless, diving into inexplicable angles and hundreds of close-ups so extreme as to be farcical. It’s enraging.
I love Les Misérables. I love the book, I love the musical.
I do not love this movie.
I certainly appreciate some qualities of the film. Many of the performances are tremendous, and I admire Hooper’s decision to film the actors singing their numbers live, rather than sweetening the music later in the studio. The raw songs are blended more seamlessly with these honest performances, and it works beautifully. Each note wasn’t flawless, but they were all keenly felt.
Hugh Jackman is quite wonderful, outsized and marvelously assured in such an arduous role. Jean Valjean is at times broken, heroic, bewildered, imposing – Jackman lives in each moment easily. He moves from strong, young prisoner to dying old man with equal conviction, belting out his solos while his eyes command more emotion than even the lyrics.
Russell Crowe’s Javert is earnest and solemn, and the man gives it his all, completely game if not always credible. Amanda Seyfried (with a shockingly lovely soprano voice) and Eddie Redmayne are heartfelt and charming as the young lovers Cosette and Marius, while Samantha Barks reprises her stage role as Éponine to devastating effect. To no surprise, her “On My Own” is perfect.
But the shooting star of the film, too brief and bright, is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, giving of herself entirely, absolutely destroying me as she sings “I Dreamed A Dream” while shaking with sobs. This moment, one of the most powerful, captivating, heartbreaking scenes I’ve ever watched, is in a film that utterly does not deserve it. Hathaway is Fantine, the wrecked, hopeless remains of a woman whose very life killed her dreams. She is magnificent.
And when Fantine disappears from the movie minutes after, Les Misérables becomes a much worse film for it.
The second act opens with a tonal change that works onstage but not in the film, with Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen rousing and capering as the Thénardiers. Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen could try the patience of even the most forbearing audience member. In a year that saw the remarkably successful tonal shifts of Cloud Atlas, and with far more disparate tones than in Les Misérables, the failure of the Thénardiers rankles.
But that is nothing to the galling, reckless camerawork that debilitates the entire film. Every angle, every movement by the camera raises the question of “why?” Why this angle? Why that swoop? Why can I count the pores on Hugh Jackman’s face yet again? And notably, this chaotic approach seems to get worse throughout the film, not better. Hooper’s direction is not something the audience can become accustomed to because it grows increasingly conspicuous.
The excessive close-ups only serve to limit the scope of the film. Every scene feels like it holds just one actor, and while that actor is often able to command the screen, it makes Les Misérables, one of the grandest, most majestic musicals of all time, feel tiny. With the resources offered by Hollywood, shouldn’t a film feel larger than a theatrical production? Or at least no smaller?
If, in turn, the film felt intensely personal, I could respect Hooper’s decision, but the gritty realism and shaky cam he defiantly injects into every scene sap the story of its intimacy. Any heart, any familiarity in Les Misérables is due solely to the actors, and remains in spite of Hooper’s best efforts.
I’m reminded of the artistic license Joe Wright took in Anna Karenina, a film I quite liked. The style of Anna Karenina is energetic, modern, purposeful. The stylistic choices Hooper makes in Les Misérables feel wholly without cause.
This film could have been simply Les Misérables: The Musical: The Movie, and I would have loved it. Or it could have been something bold and singular but focused, and I would have loved it still. Hooper can make as many changes as he likes to this cherished material, but those changes need to be meaningful. Unquestionably, the movie boasts some exquisite performances, and of course it has the story and songs we already love so well, but to my eyes, Tom Hooper added nothing of meaning or consequence to Les Misérables.