Film musicals will never be mistaken for a dark, brooding experience. There are a collection of musicals that have gone to the dark side, most notably Tim Burton’s bloody take on Sweeney Todd, but musicals are typically a source of jubilant dancing and enthusiastic impromptu singing. Les Misérables, the worldwide stage phenomenon, refuses its genres’ schemata. The stage version of Les Misérables is bombastic and heartfelt, as it obliterates its audience with oppressive themes and sensational voices. Having seen it live a handful of times, it absolutely shreds the senses, leaving many in attendance sobbing uncontrollably. The emotional purity of a performer’s voice entrances the audience much like a blossoming flower hypnotically captures a bee’s gaze. It speaks to your very being. Capturing the unfastened voice of a performer has never been film’s forte. Through the use of lip sync and playback, musicals, no matter how much I enjoy them, have always felt dishonest to a degree because of their invested interest in pristine singing.
By default, the film adaptation of Les Misérables is unique because of its dark nature, but it gained another level of significance because director Tom Hooper boldly threw out film musical conventions and replaced post production dubs with live singing from the cast. Hooper’s attempt to maintain the stage’s emotional reach had my respect from the film’s first frame. Then he lost it. From strange directorial choices to dubious editing, Les Misérables failed to capture my imagination and, most importantly, the stage’s emotional essence. For the uninitiated, Les Misérables chronicles the ongoing rivalry between perceived criminal Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Their battle rages over the course of two decades and amidst the French Revolution, leaving both men pinned between salvation and damnation. Surrounding Javert and Jean Valjean is the death and growth of young love, poor French marauders seeking financial support in the streets, and plenty of singing about dreams effortlessly dying like a rat in the sewers.
There are a lot of moving parts within the film’s narrative, just like in the stage production, but Hooper refuses to parse the source material down. Instead, he collects nearly every note from the stage and places it in his adaptation. One can admire the ambition, but the film’s pacing suffers for such loyalty. Rather than savoring the film’s emotional impact, we’re quickly whisked away from one musical number to the next. Suddenly, we’re bombarded with emotional songs that leave our hearts just as quickly as they arrive. In many respects, we’re left breathless for all the wrong reasons; not because the music and acting overwhelm us. If there is but one moment where Hooper and his editor allow for the emotion to ferment, it would undoubtedly hail from Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine, a single mother turned gutter dweller that changes Jean Valjean’s life. Hathaway delivers an iteration of “I Dreamed a Dream” that’s the equivalent of receiving a dagger to the gut. Fractured and imperfect, her voice encapsulates an unfathomable struggle that will surely send shivers down your spine, if not elicit a stream of tears.
The unequivocal beauty of Hathaway’s performance, as well as Eddie Redmayne’s presence in the film’s second half as a Parisian revolutionist in love, hints at Les Misérables’ potential greatness. Hooper simply can’t deliver on it. Now, the pacing is certainly a huge issue, but Hooper’s flair, or lack thereof, also makes the affair bland. One of the oft discussed aspects of Hooper’s vision revolves around his intense use of close-ups. On paper it sounds like a great idea: capture the expressive power of the human face, an element missing from the stage production. What sounds nice on paper swells into a problem that makes the film feel claustrophobic and diminutive in scope. The sheer entertainment of the picture also takes a hit when Hooper refuses to embellish the film with any kind of movement, camera or otherwise. Hooper has certainly crafted a handsome film with a terrific cast, sans the wasted Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, but Les Misérables feels terribly grounded. It’s almost as if Hooper tried to mix the bravado of a musical with the straight-faced work of a drama. His efforts only muted the source material’s conviction and power. Surely, those faithful to the source material will likely love what they see, but a film about personal and social revolution shouldn’t be so damn pedestrian.