How disappointing is Les Misérables? For the rest of this critique, I’m not even going to give it the courtesy of an accent aigu (that’s the “e” with a little diagonal line on top of it, you leptons). You only get one, Les Miserables, and that was just for Anne Hathaway. The rest of Les Miserables is the kind of film that makes you just want to slap it and yell, “From the DIAPHRAGM!”
The film, an adaptation of the over 30-year-old stage production (previously a concept album) based on Victor Hugo’s 1832 novel, has decades if not centuries of reputation behind it. Normally, one would imagine that this history of classic literature and wildly successful stage productions – and at least one disappointing film version starring Liam Neeson – would raise the expectations for Les Miserables, setting it up for inevitable failure. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. That very legacy has the tragic effect of making Tom Hooper’s new adaptation of Les Miserables seem better than it really is. The music, from a compositional standpoint, is stirring enough on its own that the film itself is nearly incidental. You could close your eyes and think that Hooper’s Les Miserables is pretty darned good; or at least, you could if more than half the cast could handle the enormity of the music they’ve been given to perform.
But keeping your eyes open for Les Miserables doesn’t do Hooper’s movie any favors. Tom Hooper’s previous film, The King’s Speech, was a decent if unmemorable Oscar-winner, and boasted performances fine enough to overlook exactly how humdrum the actual cinematic storytelling was. The director was thoroughly capable of letting The King’s Speech, a small-scale production about British people having conversations in good-looking rooms, play itself out straight. The larger scale of Les Miserables, taking place as it does over the course of decades and climaxing in a revolutionary conflict, demands more complexity than Hooper seems able to provide. He opens strong, with an impressive image of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into a harbor with their bare hands, but the grandiosity peaks early, and for the rest of Les Miserables’ production we’re treated to such brilliant filmmaking techniques as instructing actors to sing up into the sky and then cutting to a shot of them from a bird’s-eye view.
It seems daring the first time Hooper lets an entire song to play out in a medium shot, allowing Anne Hathaway – one of the few performers in Les Miserables who can both sing and act simultaneously – to act the hell out of the film’s show-stopping number, “I Dreamed a Dream.” After a while you stop seeing her performance altogether and instead your brain starts uploading images of her Oscar getting engraved months in advance, since it’s the kind of song – like Dreamgirls’ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” – that would earn any actor an Academy Award for simply performing it with base competence. Anne Hathaway is far beyond the rest of Les Miserables’ production, and imbues her number with a special kind of power that, indeed, makes all the Oscar talk seem understandable, albeit not necessarily necessary.
But not every performer in Les Miserables can handle the wall-to-wall music with the same level of craftsmanship. Russell Crowe, in particular, seems to have been handed a part – that of the obsessed lawman Javert – far beyond his vocal range, and Hugh Jackman has a tendency to give up singing altogether whenever real acting is necessary. Although most of the main cast, consisting of prominent Hollywood talent like Crowe, Jackman, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, is thoroughly capable of conveying their characters, they often seem stymied by the requirement to belt out operatic musical numbers at the same time. As such, minor characters – soldiers, for example, with only one lyric to their credit in the movie – manage to outshine all the award-winners, probably (one suspects) because they have actually received the training necessary to properly convey this kind of material.
The story of Les Miserables is a potent one, and like the music, it elevates the actual filmmaking by its enduring power. Jean Valjean (Jackman) has been imprisoned for 19 years after stealing a loaf of bread, and after his release finds God and breaks parole to carve out a new life, free of the harsh persecution of former convicts. He becomes such an upstanding member of the community that the lawman Javert (Crowe) no longer recognizes him. But Valjean discovers that another man is going to be sent to jail for his crimes and, unwilling to bear the weight of the guilt that would bring him, he reveals his identity. Javert begins a dogged chase, motivated as he is by the letter of the law regardless of context, and Valjean retreats once again into hiding with a young child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), whom he has vowed to protect after her mother, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has had her life destroyed because Valjean was too distracted by Javert’s investigation to help her. Eventually, Cosette grows up into Amanda Seyfried, and her story of young love with the French revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) becomes another obstacle to her safety, and Valjean must againweigh the risk of doing the right thing in God’s eyes against making his own, already difficult life nearly impossible to manage.
The themes of morality vs. practicality remain as potent as ever, and the sweeping arc of Valjean and Javert’s journeys, set against a thematically meaningful time in French history, give the actual story of Les Miserables a grandness that Hooper’s film can never seem to match. It’s capable filmmaking in service of one of the great works of literature, and a musical with overwhelming theatricality trusted to a cast at best sporadically capable of performing their parts on the multiple levels necessary to actually do their jobs right. They gave a barrel of nails to a team of craftsmen wielding socket wrenches, and to their credit, those nails wound up in the wood; bent, certainly, and barely keeping the structure intact, but they are at least where they need to be. Les Miserables gets the deed done, but deserves no extra credit for all its hard work. It’s as good as it can be and still adequately hide behind its source material. Any worse and we’d see Les Miserables clearly for the disappointing production it really is. Any better and it might have been a genuinely great film.