It’s simple. You’re either for or against Les Misérables, the epic musical that broke records on the London, New York, and regional stages around the world. In an exercise of hubris, bravery or naïveté, Tom Hooper, his King’s Speech Best Director Oscar still in possession of its original sheen, has elected to helm the long-awaited film adaptation. Full disclosure: I’m a lover of the show’s music and performance opportunities, and a hater of its book, full of contrivance and unearned relationships. I dreamed a dream that that Hooper could be the man to use this adaptation as an opportunity to clean up some of the narrative debris from the show. Alas, I was on my own in that hope.
Misérables, is, of course, itself an adaptation of the 1862 Victor Hugo novel in which intertwining lives from all the classes were affected by the 1832 student uprising. The stage show, originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, featured the music of Alain Boublil and the composer Claude-Michel Schönberg (with English-language lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), and the music – pabulum to some, haunting ethereality to many more – represented something of a watershed. It’s noteworthy that while the show arrived at the tail end of musical theatre songs receiving radio airplay, Misérables remains the one show ever to have had not one, but two numbers (“I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own”) performed live on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, as significant a measure of the show’s reach as the millions of tickets, recordings and translations it received.
In addition to the two aforementioned musical numbers, other beloved tunes include “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “One Day More.” The music could be accused of being mawkish (are you surprised? The show’s title literally translates to “the miserable people,” but Nunn and Caird’s stage production married spectacle and novel techniques – a revolving stage, a barricade forming itself before our eyes – with the emotion of the show’s songs and plot points to create a fully dimensional experience. The tableau of having the entire ensemble march in unison created a sense of solidarity despite their individual suffering. Giving time for the live orchestra’s music to swell and allowing for audience applause created a call-and-response sensation that made Misérables a rousing, soaring experience.
Hooper has embarked on a semi-stunt with his much-ballyhooed decision to have his actors perform live instead of lip-syncing to studio recordings (Note: Peter Bogdanovich and Alan Parker have also done this, in At Long Last Love and The Commitments, respectively; stage cast recordings have also always done this.) It’s much ado about rather little. The verisimilitude of getting to hear actors reach for an occasional breath doesn’t add much dimension, but Dominic Gibbs’ sound design is pristine and it allows several of the film’s trained musical performers, like Samantha Barks as Eponine, daughter of crooked innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, both returning from Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and channeling much of that film’s dark humor), Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the leader of the revolution, and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a conflicted student caught between his beliefs and newfound love for the blandly sweet Cosette (a tremulous, wide-eyed Amanda Seyfried), to emphasize the power of the music. Two child actors, Isabelle Allen and Daniel Huttlestone, are also naturalistic and moving.
I have been kind so far. But at some point, like Marius choosing red over black, I, too, must show my true colors. Hooper has taken the show’s onstage warmth and turned it cold by filming the good guys in Misérables in loving, tight close-up, often at odd acute angles, and the baddies with a distorted fisheye lens at wide angles to accentuate their grotesquery. Occasionally, cinematographer Danny Cohen will zoom out of Eve Stewart’s claustrophobic production design just to remind us that we are indeed, watching a movie. The result isn’t just elementary and redundant. The isolated close ups preserve their status as distinct lonely hearts in our minds eye. They cut characters off from one another right when they should appear together, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Yes, it’s a tall order to adapt Misérables. The source material comes with its own flaws, and many of its assets come geared to the stage. But the show, so full of muscle mass onstage, feels larded down on screen. Hooper’s film is glacially paced yet still hurtles through event after event, making it difficult for anything to resonate and raising many questions for those unfamiliar with the show’s plot, condensed here by William Nicholson. What motivates the students’ rebellion in the first place? Why is Marius so instantly smitten with Cosette after just one look? Why, too, does the main martyr Jean Valjean (a struggling Hugh Jackman) view Marius as a surrogate son? And why is police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) so zealously devoted to his pursuit of Valjean, even after the former convict has become a respectable, productive businessman and mayor?
Some of Hooper’s choices could have distilled the intersecting stories instead of making them murkier. And when it comes to the starrier members of his cast, Hooper doesn’t so much as direct his actors as merely unleash his camera on them. An off-key Crowe offers no illumination, and Jackman, one of the harder-working performers in Hollywood, is defeated by Hooper’s mandate that he sing in quavering half-voice instead of his glorious full register.
Of course, one gets the impression that some of these choices were beyond Hooper’s control. Misérables reeks of studio interference. How else to explain the scenic re-shuffling that enhances Fantine’s (Anne Hathaway) presence and diminishes that of Eponine, who should remain the tragic face of the entire work? The reversal of fortune that sends her from spoiled Thénardier daughter to broken-hearted street urchin was the most palpable example of life’s cruelty in both Hugo’s novel and the stage production. Removing her from a critical late scene to give the saintly Fantine more time is an outright flaw. Disposing of that insults the audience and makes for a lesser release at the end, not mention belying a not-too-hidden agenda regarding Hathaway’s awards hunger.
And Hooper’s one-take on Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” stands out from the others in the film, which is otherwise full of motif reprisals and rhyming couplets. That, combined, with Hathaway’s heavy-handed delivery (she pushes too hard so often – for example, on the climactic lyric involving “what it seeeemed” – and on a song this precise, that matters), it puts the audience at an immediate remove. It’s a stark contrast to the work of everyone, including Allen and Huddlestone. The celebrity seems intent on stepping outside the performance to say “See what I’m doing here!” (see also Sean Penn in I Am Sam); it’s her version of a Victor Cruz touchdown victory dance. Everything about her labored effort screams “Notice me!,” but the point is that her character is already resigned to the fact that no one ever will. Even the attention-starved Kardashians would watch her and think, “That’s over-the-top.”
Much of this criticism is for naught. The die-hard fans will love the chance to hear their beloved songs again and fresh audiences may love to see their stars sing, regardless of their effect. But despite the characters plights, Misérables should remain an uplifting experience. In opting for a slavish realism, Hooper has weighed the musical down in grime, grit and grimace, and the result is hollow, lacking in soul. Dramatic for the sake of being dramatic, a too-serious Misérables forgets the importance of being earnest.