The producers of Les Miserables have owned the film rights for decades, and they have stated in recent interviews that they were waiting for the right time and the right director. They got the time right – the film’s themes of economic oppression, income inequality, and a rigged criminal justice system seem tailor-made for our era. But director Tom Hooper’s bizarre directorial choices nearly ruin what is a near can’t-miss project. When the film fails, it is because of Hooper. When it succeeds, it is in spite of him.
Hooper’s style, which consistently draws attention to itself, prevented me from ever fully suspending my disbelief, which is necessary with all films but particularly with movie musicals. His biggest mistake is usually a simple case of where he puts the camera and what he does with it – a rather elemental flaw. The actors are consistently shot in extreme close-up with wide-angle lenses that render their faces grotesque and cartoonish. At times, this is appropriate. Anne Hathaway creates the most memorable moment in the film with her raw and emotional single take of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Likewise, the teenage revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) offers us a stirring rendition of grief with “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” The close-ups in these numbers confront us with the unbridled, often unattractive emotions of the characters, and they work marvelously in the moment.
But when we deal only in tight shots, we lose the connections between the characters and each other, their environment, and ultimately, the story itself. Even Hooper’s much-ballyhooed choice to let his actors sing live instead of on the soundtrack backfires: it creates an immediacy that serves the individual performances but asks us to withdraw our attention from the narrative. As such, this Les Miserables feels more like a showcase for performers than a coherent drama.
And only some of those performances are worth showing. Russell Crowe is a man of many acting talents, but singing is not one of them; he simply cannot capture the intensity of the methodical and ruthless Inspector Javert through song. Hugh Jackman, on the surface, is a fine choice for Jean Valjean. He has the acting chops and a lovely voice, but his background in musical theater may have actually been a disservice. He seems not to realize how close the camera is to his face, and he belts most of his songs out to the cheap seats.
Still, the power of the narrative largely survives these odd choices. Not even Hooper can screw up the immense human drama of a failed revolution. The final act, in which Marius and Valjean take part in the famous June Rebellion, is undeniably moving, and the issues embedded in the narrative will resonate deeply with Western audiences suffering the lingering effects of the recession and the failures of government to craft solutions.
Hooper, to his credit, never glosses over the violence of his plot. The rebels’ most vulnerable member is the first to die, and soon the streets will literally run red with the brothers’ blood. The optimistic, near-mawkish note of populism that Hooper sounds – particularly in the film’s final scene that posthumously links the revolutionaries with Valjean and Fantine (Hathaway) – are earned by the film’s brutal and moving third act. The events leading up to it could have been better realized, but the occasional successes and stylistic failures in this film offer a simple lesson in storytelling: there is little that a good story and a good song cannot overcome.