Tom Hooper’s movie puts the misery back into ‘Les Miserables’ and takes the ‘musical’ out

Having expressed our views about the hype surrounding Tom Hooper’s new film version of ‘Les Miserables’, and our concerns that the casting would prove as disappointing as it was for the 25th Anniversary concert, we felt it was time to give Hooper and Cameron Mackintosh a chance to convince us of the greatness of this film.

The pre-publicity has been anxious to point out that this is going to be a re-imagining of the stage version, and with the impressive opening sequence, Hooper sets out his stall.  A panoramic sweep reveals a ship listing on the ocean, as it is hauled into the docks by hundreds of men, prisoners in the ‘galleys’, of whom Jean Valjean is one, bringing home the reality of Valjean’s imprisonment in a way the stage version couldn’t possibly convey.  The scene where he meets the Bishop of Digne highlights the remote location and the rugged grandeur of the countryside, and underlines the significance of the encounter and the decision he makes to disappear and live an honest life (albeit under a false identity).

The problem is that these moments are few and far between, and there are just too many scenes where the opening out of the action is an irritating distraction.  Javert, for example, sings both of his key monologues (the songs ‘Stars’ and ‘Soliloquy’) from high buildings looking out onto the landscape below.  A nice idea, except that Hooper insists on having us believe that Javert is literally walking on the edge of the parapet with a close-up of his boots and the sheer drop below.  Both these scenes look fake, and detract from the singing.  Given Russell Crowe’s vocal performance as Javert, perhaps that was the intention.  The sets never really convince, and the fantasy ‘super barricade’ which is erected on location at the Greenwich Maritime college as the entire cast sing the closing reprise of ‘Do you hear the people sing’, just looks ridiculous.  Hooper really seems to be running out of ideas when, in the final shoot-out with the student rebels, Enjolras’s iconic death tableau from the stage show is recreated through an incredibly contrived slow-motion sequence which involves him being blasted backwards out of a window.

It seems only natural that a film version of ‘Les Miserables’ would want to try to ‘fix’ some of the plot holes which appear in the stage version.  One of the key elements which doesn’t bear too much scrutiny is the way that Inspector Javert seems to be at liberty to chase Jean Valjean all round the country for years, and the convenient way that Valjean always seems to get away.  That great hallmark of Trevor Nunn’s original, the revolving stage designed by John Napier, solves these problems by literally keeping the action moving as each vignette literally flies into the shadows at the back of the stage.  In the film, Hooper has tried to introduce a ‘thriller’ element to the action, most notably when Valjean first escapes with the young Cosette, dodging through the backstreets and using a rope to winch both of the up and down from the rooftops, until we see him lying flat on top of a wall as we see Javert in the streets below.  It’s a nice bit of action, but it does create an expectation that cannot possibly be fulfilled.  Similarly the hyper-realistic escape in the sewers (we’ll say no more) seems rather absurd given how unrealistic much of the rest of the action is.

Not only has the plot been ‘fixed’, the emotion is literally rammed down our throats at every turn, especially the misery.  A key decision which seems to have been hailed by most as a ‘triumph’ (the oscar voters certainly seem to think so) is to have Fantine sing her momentous song ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ later in the downward spiral of her story, when she is truly in the depths of despair.  The only problem with this is that it rams home the despair part, ignoring the ‘dream’ part.  Now, the impetus of the song is her becoming a prostitute.  In the stage version she has just lost her job, and she is singing about being unable to see her child, losing her lover, and being unable to escape poverty or have a ‘normal’ family life.  One could say that it is the despair expressed in the song which leads to her contemplating prostitution, and the fact that her life is about to become so much worse is part of the poignancy.

In his review in the Huffington Post, Scott Mendelson caused some consternation by suggesting that the pitch of the film’s emotional intensity is so high that the songs seem almost redundant.  We think he has hit the nail on the head.  In name of realism we are bombarded with actors singing sad songs through sobs.  Whilst we have to admire Anne Hathaway for her technical achievements when she sings ‘I dreamed a dream’, her acting choices are more questionable.  Fantine is stamped with the label of ‘victim’ as soon as we set eyes on her, and not allowed a shred of dignity or redemption through the music.  Hugh Jackman doesn’t seem to have a volume control either, and his rendition of ‘Bring him home’ is more a declamation than a prayer.  And Eddie Redmayne’s entire rendition of ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is soaked in tears.  They’re miserable.  We get it.

Much play has been made of the live recording of the music for this film, leading to Michael Cerveris tweeting that Broadway is full of singers singing live every night – and they don’t get a second take.  In fact we are told that some songs took 21 takes.  So, not that spontaneous then.  Despite Russell Crowe’s protestations that Hooper wanted a ‘rough and ready’ sound, we are not convinced that this is the reason why the actors in this film appear to be unable to sing properly.  Perhaps with better and more experienced singers it might have worked, but for us, it is the ‘live’ singing which has killed off this film.  Musicals are a collaboration.  The composers create the music to be part of a whole.  But in this process, the actors lead the way, and perhaps this is the reason why so many of the performances which have attracted attention scream ‘look at me!’, trampling over tempo and tonal range to fit in with an acting performance instead of trusting the music to convey the emotion.  Each individual sings their part from their character’s point of view, but nobody seems to be paying attention to the overall shape of the piece, and the effect it should have on an audience.  Few of the cast have the vocal ability to  really convey the light and shade that is inherent in the music, and ultimately this is the problem.  Would anyone try to deny that Boublil and Schonberg’s ‘Les Miserables’ is popular because it is a musical?  For us, the music is paramount, and if that is not right, no amount of spectacle will help.  In his relentless pursuit of gritty realism and visual splendour Hooper has created something soulless, because the music, the true star of this piece, is never allowed to shine.

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One Response to Tom Hooper’s movie puts the misery back into ‘Les Miserables’ and takes the ‘musical’ out

  1. John Branch says:

    I have never really understood why, of all of Victor Hugo’s work, Les Miserables is practically the only novel that’s much read and discussed among Anglophone readers. (Not that I’ve read the others, but I know of them, and I recently read a stimulating essay by Umberto Eco, in his most recent book, that discussed some others.) And, since I never saw the musical version on stage, I didn’t have that much interest in seeing it transferred to film. Reviews such as yours have pretty much confirmed my guess that I don’t need to see it. Thanks for that.


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