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A gallery of stellar performers wages a Sisyphean battle against musical diarrhea and a laboriously repetitive visual approach in the big-screen version of the stage sensation Les Miserables. Victor Hugo‘s monumental 1862 novel about a decades-long manhunt, social inequality, family disruption, injustice and redemption started its musical life onstage in 1980 and has been around ever since, a history of success that bodes well for this lavish, star-laden film. But director Tom Hooper has turned the theatrical extravaganza into something that is far less about the rigors of existence in early 19th century France than it is about actors emoting mightily and singing their guts out. As the enduring success of this property has shown, there are large, emotionally susceptible segments of the population ready to swallow this sort of thing, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
The first thing to know about this Les Miserables is that this creation of Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, is, with momentary exceptions, entirely sung, more like an opera than a traditional stage musical. Although not terrible, the music soon begins to slur together to the point where you’d be willing to pay the ticket price all over again just to hear a nice, pithy dialogue exchange between Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe rather than another noble song that sounds a lot like one you just heard a few minutes earlier. There were 49 identifiable musical numbers in the original show, and one more has been added here.
Greatly compounding the problem is that director Hooper, in his first outing since conquering Hollywood two years ago with his breakthrough feature, The King’s Speech, stages virtually every scene and song in the same manner, with the camera swooping in on the singer and thereafter covering him or her and any other participants with hovering tight shots; there hasn’t been a major musical so fond of the close-up since Joshua Logan attempted to photograph Richard Harris‘ tonsils in Camelot. Almost any great musical one can think of features sequences shot in different ways, depending upon the nature of the music and the dramatic moment; for Hooper, all musical numbers warrant the same monotonous approach of shoving the camera right in the performer’s face; any closer and their breath would fog the lens, as, in this instance, the actors commendably sang live during the shooting, rather than being prerecorded.
With Hooper’s undoubted encouragement, the eager thespians give it their all here, for better and for worse. The “live” vocal performances provide an extra vibrancy and immediacy that is palpable, though one cannot say that the technique is necessarily superior in principle, as it was also used by Peter Bogdanovich on his famed folly, At Long Last Love.
One of the chief interests of the film is discovering the singing abilities of the notable actors assembled here, other than Jackman, whose musical prowess is well-known. Crowe, who early in his career starred in The Rocky Horror Show and other musicals onstage in Australia, has a fine, husky baritone, while Eddie Redmayne surprises with a singing voice of lovely clarity. Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean onstage in London and New York, turns up here as the benevolent Bishop of Digne.
On the female side, Anne Hathaway dominates the early going, belting out anguish as the doomed Fantine. Playing her grown daughter Cosette, Amanda Seyfried delights with clear-as-a-bell high notes, while Samantha Barks, as a lovelorn Eponine, is a vocal powerhouse.
The problem, then, is not at all the singing itself but that the majority of the numbers are pitched at the same sonic-boom level and filmed the same way. The big occasion when Hooper tries something different, intercutting among nearly all the major characters at crossroads in the Act 1 climax “One Day More,” feels like a pale imitation of the electrifying “Tonight” ensemble in the film version of West Side Story.
It’s entirely possible that no book has been adapted more frequently to other media than Hugo’s epic, one of the longest novels ever written. About 60 big- and small-screen versions have been made throughout the world, beginning with a representation by the Lumiere brothers in 1897, and Orson Welles did a seven-part radio version in 1937. In 1985, five years after the Paris debut of the French musical, the English-language production, with a new libretto by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn, opened in London, to less-than-stellar reviews, and is still playing. The New York counterpart packed houses from 1987-2003 and, at 6,680 performances, ranks as the third-longest-running musical in Broadway history (it reopened in 2006 and played another two years).
At the story’s core is Jean Valjean (Jackman), a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape and, upon his release, redeems himself under a new identity as a wealthy factory owner and socially liberal mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But his former prison guard Javert (Crowe), now a police inspector, finds him out and, over a period of 17 years, mercilessly hounds him until their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of June 1832.
Woven through it is no end of melodrama concerning Valjean raising Fantine’s beautiful daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a tyke, Seyfried as a young woman); the latter’s star-crossed romance with Marius (Redmayne), a wealthy lad turned idealistic revolutionary; his handsome comrade-in-arms Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the earthy Eponine, who woefully accepts that her beloved Marius is besotted by Cosette. Well and truly having rumbled in from the film version of Sweeney Todd, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen gallumph through as small-time swindlers in very broad comic relief.
Startlingly emaciated in his initial scenes while still on strenuous prison work detail, Jackman’s Valjean subsequently cuts a more proper and dashing figure after his transformation into a gentleman. His defense of the abused Fantine and subsequent adoption of her daughter represent the fulcrum of Hugo’s central theme that a man can change and redeem himself, as opposed to Jalvert’s vehement conviction that once a criminal, always a criminal. The passions of all the characters are simple and deep, which accounts for much of the work’s enduring popularity in all cultures.
But it also makes for a film that, when all the emotions are echoed out at an unvarying intensity for more than 2 1/2 hours on a giant screen, feels heavily, if soaringly, monotonous. Subtle and nuanced are two words that will never be used to describe this Les Miserables, which, for all its length, fails to adequately establish two critical emotional links: that between Valjean and Cosette, and the latter’s mutual infatuation with Marius, which has no foundation at all.
Reuniting with his King’s Speech cinematographer Danny Cohen and production designer Eve Stewart, Hooper has handsome interior sets at his disposal. However, with the exception of some French city square and street locations, the predominant exteriors have an obvious CGI look. His predilection for wide-angle shots is still evident, if more restrained than before, but the editing by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens frequently seems haphazard; the musical numbers sometimes build to proper visual climaxes in union with the music, but as often as not the cutting seems almost arbitrary, moving from one close-up to another, so that scenes don’t stand out but just mush together.
The actors are ideally cast but, with a couple of exceptions, give stage-sized turns for the screen; this bigness might well be widely admired. Jackman finally gets to show onscreen the musical talents that have long thrilled live musical theater audiences, Hathaway gamely gets down and dirty and has her hair clipped off onscreen in the bargain, and Redmayne impresses as a high-caliber singing leading man, but there is little else that is inventive or surprising about the performances. Still, there is widespread energy, passion and commitment to the cause, which for some might be all that is required.
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