A couple of months ago in this paper’s fall movie preview, I speculated about the film of the musical version of Victor Hugo’s epic 1862 novel. “If this turns out a turkey,” I wrote, “director Tom Hooper … will deserve never to work again.” Well, the movie is here at last, and it’s no turkey. But Mr. Hooper does make an occasional hash of things.
There is much to respect in the movie, and the musical’s fans will probably be satisfied—on the whole. At the same time, they may find the movie somehow less stirring than the Les Misérables they remember from the stage—although no less impressive, for this Les Miz bristles with all the lavish visuals that CGI can concoct.
The casting can hardly be faulted. Hugh Jackman, stretching his Tony-winning musical chops on film at last, plays the fugitive Jean Valjean, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Russell Crowe, gamely rasping his songs, is Inspector Javert, Valjean’s implacable pursuer; and Anne Hathaway is the doomed Fantine, whose daughter Cosette (played by Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a young woman) will become Valjean’s ward and his means of personal redemption. Rounding out the principal roles are Eddie Redmayne as Marius, the revolutionary student who loves Cosette; Samantha Barks (in an impressive screen debut) as Éponine, who loves Marius in vain; and as Éponine’s parents, the despicable Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, in virtual reprises of their Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street performances. (The Thénardiers, by the way, represent the musical’s one major betrayal of Victor Hugo. In the novel, they are the only characters who are truly wicked. The Thénardiers actually go out of their way to do harm to others. In the musical, their unalloyed evil is played for laughs—understandably, since without some kind of comic relief, the story’s constant misery would be unbearable. But it violates Hugo’s moral universe; it’s like turning Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes into The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden.)
In preview trailers and publicity, the filmmakers boast—and boasting is the only word for it—that the songs were sung live on the set, eschewing the standard practice of lip-synching to prerecorded playback. It’s not the revolutionary innovation Hooper and Co. seem to think it is (it’s been done before), and it’s a bit of a double-edged sword. While it does allow for more spontaneity in performance, much of Les Miz’s singing is also rather tentative, as if the singers are afraid of drowning out the music. And maybe they were, since the only music on the set was a piano accompaniment piped to them via hidden earpieces. Singers in a stage version of Les Miz are performing with (and responding to) a full orchestra; did the movie’s performers ever even hear their orchestra before they saw the finished picture?
Hooper’s staging is unimaginative: He essentially plops the camera down in closeup and leaves it there in intimate moments, or he moves choppily among seemingly random images in the larger numbers—the Thénardiers’ usual showstopper “Master of the House” is a sloppy mess, the visuals undercutting the lyrics as often as complementing them. The movie is not particularly well-edited, and it never really finds a visual rhythm to match the music. The big anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” begins well but doesn’t build to the climax it achieves onstage—it doesn’t exactly fizzle, but we miss the power director Trevor Nunn gave it on Broadway, with his marchers and moving turntable.
Les Misérables blazes briefly to musical life early on, when Anne Hathaway delivers the show’s most famous song, Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hathaway’s performance is searing, and for once, Hooper’s bland staging is exactly right—nothing stands between us and the harrowing emotion of the song, and when it was over the night I saw it, you could have heard a pin drop 50 yards away (there’s a reason this number is so prominent in all the trailers). Those three or four minutes offered a glimpse of the great musical we might have had, instead of the pretty-good one we got.