Movie review: Les Misérables
Director throws caution and camera to the wind and produces messy adaptation of long-running musical
Posted: January 9, 2013
Not earning its bread. Jackman is well-cast as Valjean, but the film is unwieldy and mismanaged.
Director Tom Hooper got most things right in The King's Speech, including obtaining a widely lauded performance from Colin Firth, but his direction was always a bit bland, as if he was scared to show off with his visuals. Perhaps this reticence was in keeping with the main plot line of the stuttering Prince Albert of York, later King George VI, who shied away from the limelight.
It is rather sad that Hooper was chosen to direct the long-running musical Les Misérables, as his tendency to mirror the style and tone of the film in his direction leads to a very badly managed spectacle.
The plot develops over two tumultuous decades in France at the beginning of the 19th century, and sees the central character of Jean Valjean, a former convict who becomes an upstanding member of society, continuously pursued by the policeman Javert because he broke parole many years earlier.
The film can roughly be divided into two parts. In the early part, Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison, decides to make a better man out of himself and becomes mayor of the town of Montreuil. He meets Fantine, who works her fingers to the bone and has to sell her body to take care of her infant daughter Cosette, and when Fantine dies, Valjean promises to take care of her. Years later, in the second half of the film, the nation is about to revolt against its government, and the adult Cosette, unaware of Valjean's past, falls in love with the young revolutionary Marius, while Javert (Russell Crowe) tracks down Valjean and threatens his and his adopted daughter's life.
Directed by Tom Hooper
With Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Anne Hathaway
The first half of the film is incredibly strong, with a solid focus on Valjean and his development from a man without a future to a man whose desire to become better leads to a better life for at least the little Cosette. Fantine, played by Anna Hathaway, only appears in a few scenes, but she is unforgettable. In what was always going to be one of the film's signature scenes - because even viewers who haven't seen the play would know the song - she sings "I dreamed a dream in time gone by, when hope was high and life worth living ... I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I'm living."
The scene is astonishing, because it is presented as a single take, Fantine's face barely framed on the right with a lot of empty space out of focus in the rest of the frame. Boxed in as she is, Hathaway delivers an array of emotions from hope to despair, smiles to tears, and stands out against the rest of the film.
That is because Hooper's direction of the rest of the film is chaotic. His editing is often breathless without there being any need to chop up scenes into shots like it is being done by an assault weapon, and the last time a camera swung around as much as it does here was when Baz Luhrman took on Moulin Rouge!, a film whose action actually did warrant that kind of dramatic, over-the-top freewheeling.
The British director used two well-known faces from back home, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, better known as Borat, in the roles of the odious Thénardiers, the married couple of crooks in whose care Fantine had left her young daughter before she is saved by Valjean. Their pronounced British accents, as opposed to the mostly neutral accents by the rest of the cast, give their scenes a distinctly Dickensian feel, which is a clever tactic. However, the two actors - Baron Cohen in particular - try so hard to inject humor into the story that it becomes wholly pitiful to watch.
It would take quite a bit of planning to make a bad film out of such a good story, but, honestly, watching all of this whisper-singing got on my nerves, and the truly reckless use of the camera (a significant part of the budget must have been spent on tracks and cranes) means the poignancy of its use is reduced so much as to become trivial.
The film's second half is terrible. We are asked to focus on the songs and ignore enormous narrative gaps, as first Valjean and then Cosette get sidelined because of the developing story with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the other revolutionaries. The worst thing about this is that the meeting between Marius and Cosette is simply magical, and when she disappears we are left with no explanation about how she fills her time waiting on the man she has so clearly fallen in love with at first sight.
Les Misérables is not a pleasant experience, and the person responsible for this failure is mostly Tom Hooper. He doesn't know how to handle his camera with grace, and in the second part of his film he relies on our awe of the soundtrack to such a degree that he completely misses the ball as a storyteller. Diehard fans of the musical play will probably enjoy singing along to the litany of songs, but, for those more partial to the novel or who get annoyed at unnecessary camera slinging, this film can be miserable to sit through.
André Crous can be reached at
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