I saw the touring production of Les Misérables in Boston earlier this year; while I was antsy towards the end of the three-hour production ("Bring him home already, dammit!"), overall I had a great time. The show is a big, sweeping, unapologetically melodramatic epic, an emotional rollercoaster set against the backdrop of revolution. Since then, I've been looking forward to Tom Hooper's film adaptation as the perfect overstuffed holiday movie - even when I can see their flaws and excesses, I'm a sucker for old-fashioned crowd-pleasers of the sort that would have premiered as roadshows (complete with overtures and intermissions) fifty years ago. Unfortunately, Hooper isn't the right guy for the job, directing a mega-popular Broadway musical as if it were a Very Important Art Film. His misguided approach in bringing Les Mis to the screen isn't enough to ruin the movie - the music and several of the performances are strong enough that it still basically worked for me - but I can't remember another time where I thought a movie was pretty good in spite of the direction.
One choice Hooper made that I did appreciate was the decision to record the vocals on-set rather than having his actors lip-sync to previously recorded tracks, as is usually the case with movie musicals. The effect is sometimes rough around the edges, but in a good way - I like that vocals that serve the performance were given more importance that technical perfection. When Hugh Jackman, as recently released convict Jean Valjean, sings early on about the mercy a priest has shown him and the change this has caused inside him, his singing is filled with "flaws" that would make your average theatre snob wince but which make the scene much more affecting. The fearlessness the actors show - this is as close to live theatre, in terms of acting without a net, as a movie can be - and the resulting immediacy has admittedly uneven results, but the overall effect is often exhilarating.
This is especially true in the movie's best scene by far, Anne Hathaway's goosebump-inducing rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream." Over the past few years, Hathaway has proven to be one of the best young actors around, crafting believable and empathetic characters even when the material she's working with is shaky. As the doomed factory worker Fantine, she's heartbreakingachingly vulnerable and openhearted, and her performance is as big as the material requires without ever feeling hammy or self-important (she would have been great in one of David Lean's late-career romantic epics). For "I Dreamed a Dream," Hooper wisely keeps his camera fixed on Hathaway without any cutaways or his typically mannered compositions (we'll get to that in a minute); most of the song is an unbroken close-up, and I found myself marvelling at Hathaway's precision and openness (probably the most important trait for any actor) even as I got a bit of a lump in my throat. In short, she crushes it and deserves every bit of praise and awards recognition coming her way.
But when Fantine exits the film, its shortcomings become more apparent. I liked Hooper's previous film, The King's Speech, but Hooper's more self-conscious directorial mannerisms - off-center compositions, excessive dutch angles, unmotivated edits - kept me from fully embracing it. I was hoping Hooper would tone it down with Les Mis, which demands a more sweeping, romantic aesthetic, but the in-your-face, show-offy direction is actually much worse here. There are scenes that have as many cuts as a Michael Bay action sequence for no apparent reason, and the overuse of askew close-ups makes the movie feel claustrophobic when what it badly needs is a sense of an epic canvas (the film's handful of wide shots work wonderfully). It's clear that Hooper has tried to make Les Mis gritty, covering his actors and sets in dirt, grime and shit (sometimes literally). But it's not gritty, it's a frigging Broadway musical - the approach Tim Burton took with Sweeney Todd, making it visually stylish but also knowing when to step aside and trust the material, is what this sorely needed.
Hooper's direction also frequently does a disservice to his actors, especially Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. Crowe's singing isn't as bad as people have said - he's actually okay - but he's clearly working very hard to not suck, and the way that Hooper has blocked and shot Crowe's scenes, we can only see the effort, not the performance. This is a side note, but Javert is basically the worst inspector ever. He's obsessed with capturing Valjean, but he doesn't recognize his face on several occasions and only comes close to catching him when Valjean happens to be standing next to him. Maybe his inability to recognize a face is why he thinks he can successfully disguise himself and infiltrate the student protestors by putting on a hat? This is a nitpick, but the shoddy direction makes it easier to get hung up on this and other weaknesses in the original musical, particularly the completely lame romance between Fantine's daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Seyfried's got a good voice, but has almost nothing to do in the story - her eyes seem to be exclaiming, "Hi, I'm in this movie too!" It's no wonder fans of the musical tend to prefer Eponine (Samantha Barks) and her unrequited love for Marius; Barks is also very good, and her rendition of "On My Own" is another highlight of the film. Again, Hooper is smart enough to stop moving the bloody camera around and trust the performance. I wish he'd done that more - the film's battle sequences, in particular, are a complete mess.
Probably the film's biggest missed opportunity is that, at a time when the global economy is fragile and, just last year, student protestors were being pepper-sprayed by cops, there's never any attempt to give the story any contemporary relevance. I was struck by the connection when I saw the musical, and amused by the idea that it was being performed in a theatre where the cheap seats were $70 and much of the audience probably didn't make the obvious connection between 19th-century France and the world we live in now. The movie could have been both a crowd-pleaser and a broad rabble-rouser, but for all its artistic pretensions, it doesn't feel like Hooper put much thought into what the musical is actually about. As I said, it still works because of the music and the obvious commitment of its performances (Hugh Jackman deserves a lot of credit for basically carrying the movie on his shoulders). It'll probably satisfy fans of the musical, but I can't help imagining how much better it could have been.