Les Miserables is the longest running musical in West End history and was the recipient of eight Tony Awards in 1987. Tom Hooper was the darling of the 2011 Academy Awards with his debut feature The King’s Speech garnering four Oscar statuettes. So, on paper Les Miserables should be a no brainer.
It’s got great pedigree, a huge fanbase, a set of cast iron guaranteed wins on its song sheet. How could it possibly go wrong? Well, that question still stands without reply. This new adaptation of Victor Hugo’s huge door-stopper novel is as glorious as anything we could have expected.
Tom Hooper’s latest film is most definitely not lacking in scope. From the off we are landed in a biblically huge shipyard, witness to thousands of slaves working under the keen observation of the villain of the piece, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Toiling away far under him we soon find our hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a man condemned to slavery for twenty years for stealing a piece of bread. The distance between the two is more than just physical and soon their actions will throw them into a story which spans a large period of French history culminating in the 1823 June Rebellion.
The beautifully lit, wonderfully evocative shipyard that opens the film is a great showcase of the visual splendor of Hooper’s Les Mis. Eve Stewart’s production design is exemplary, Danny Cohen’s photography really makes the most of it and the make-up department have gone to great pains to firstly make everyone surprisingly dirty and secondly, really brown up everyone’s teeth. It took me a few minutes to adjust with the old stage mantra of ‘tits and teeth’ flying headlong out of the window. The colour palette, the framing of the shots, the to-camera solos caught in long unflinching takes; this is how you film a stage show. Cohen knows how to shoot abject poverty with an eye to the musical sensibility, I’ll give him that, and if there’s one thing Hooper gets spot-on here (and there’s a lot), it’s the relationship between the songs and the camera.
The process of cross-medium adaptation can be one fraught with difficulty. Les Mis first leapt from page to stage in 1980 and then in 1985 was translated into English and into what is probably it’s best known format. In moving it to the stage the songs and the staging were what the adaptation was all about. Its continued existence depended on it offering something different from the novel. When making a musical this is easy. You have songs – well, here too you have songs. Technically the entire script is pretty much sung, give or take a few lines of straight dialogue. The film is so faithful to Herbert Kretzmer’s English language musical, that on paper you’re getting the exact same deal.
Hooper makes his medium count by staging much of the film in the up close and personal way that is impossible in a seated theatre. But that’s it. It looks glorious, it looks cinematic and more importantly it feels cinematic – that’s where the innovation ends. Working from that base the film is content to do the musical. Really well. From the uncomfortably close long takes of ”I Dreamed A Dream’ (much more on which later), to the epic and all-sweeping ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’, each song is given time to breathe. Once each is given this time then comes the performances themselves and I must say that the quality of singing on show is often jarringly variable.
The principal cast hold it together rather well with Samantha Barks (fresh from the stage production, playing Eponine and more than holding her own), Eddie Redmayne (as Marius) and Amanda Seyfried (as Cosette) doing well. The one real exception is Crowe who is somewhat weak and always operating on the edge of his comfort zone. He hits a few bum notes over his ample time on screen, but this is no surprise as Hooper’s decision to have the actors singing live on camera was one that would surely lead to this sort of thing. However the inconsistencies of their vocal performance adds real texture to the character of the film and suits the violent immediacy that some of the songs demand. Crowe’s rather flat performance doesn’t kill the film, but it is awfully strange and when has strange ever been a bad thing? I rather liked his Javert. He was pompous, he was stubborn, he couldn’t even sing that well. A suitable shortcoming if you ask me.
Jackman’s casting in the role of Valjean on the other hand was a completely predictable decision, and it was predictable for a reason. He’s a song and dance man. This is what he does. On the whole his register, tone and impressive presence give us everything we could ask of our leading man. However (and it pains me to say this), his delivery of show-stopper ‘Bring Him Home’ sees him wrestling not so much with his emotions but with his register. He struggles with what should be a huge highlight. It’s the moment of all his moments and just after Barks sticks ‘On My Own’ up there in all its glory he fails to do it justice. But on the whole as I said, he’s as solid as he looks. The individual songs aren’t everything.
The director’s focus (a symptom of the source material’s West End past I’m sure) on parts of the whole, can leave the whole seeming somewhat neglected from time to time. Although the running time is by no means brief the film is far from the glacial trudge is could have been. The story and exposition is dispatched efficiently and the editing by Chris Dickens is superbly crisp and assured. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s predictably rousing take on ‘One Day More’. This is of course where the intertwining stories all finally weave together, paving the way for the climactic battle. It’s just a slight shame that this build up to the climax seems a climax of sorts in itself.
This is the main flaw here. Whereas in stage the grammar of slipping between chorus and solo performance is well established, on screen it can be somewhat more stunted. In pursuit of doing the individual songs justice Hooper has to buffet through tonal changes at a rate of knots. The story is huge and expansive, but the real drama and intrigue is found on the personal level and in intimate, character centric performances. Something had to give and in this case its occasionally tonal continuity.
But this sacrifice does have its benefits. This devotion to the set piece lows Anne Hathaway (as Fantine) to deliver a completely blistering rendition of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’. In a one-take, in your face, in her face, tour de force four-and-a-half minutes she steals the show. In what perhaps leads to the worst of these tonal changes the story takes some time out to really show the horror of Fantine’s story. This serves both to set up Cosette’s arrival in Valjean’s care but also serves the climax of this vignette (‘I Dreamed a Dream’) the context it needs to really blow the audience away.
Les Miserables is not so much a story of a revolution, it’s a story about people. Their hopes, their shortcomings and – if not their dreams – then at least their desire to have the chance to chase them. On the personal level Hooper delivers it perfectly. Looking at it from a broader perspective? It’s still great. Not only is Les Miserables a great film, but it is now the textbook example of how to adapt a musical for the screen whilst all the while maintaining an utterly straight face. Glorious.