d – Tom Hooper
w – William Nicholson, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg (Based on the Novel by Victor Hugo)
ph – Danny Cohen
pd – Eve Stewart
ed – Chris Dickens, Melanie Ann Oliver
cos – Paco Delgado
p – Cameron Mackintosh, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Colm Wilkinson, Isabelle Allen
One of the greatest of all films is Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). It recently was placed at number nine on 2012’s instalment of the Sight and Sound’s Greatest Movies of All Time. Dreyer once wrote, “Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring.” He was a filmmaker known for his use of intense facial close-ups (not a very popular stratagem during the silent era) and it reached its apogee on that film, where his camera assiduously explores Joan’s anguish and the malevolence of her accusers. It is a brilliant film. If you haven’t seen it, do. My life changed forever and so might yours.
Although I obviously do not know this for sure, I can’t help but feel that Tom Hooper must have seen (and loved) this film as well. There is a clear influence from one director to another. Mr Hooper, in all his films, loves keeping his camera a nose away from his actors. Never has he done it more so than in his latest, the big-screen adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables, based on the Broadway musical…..based on the London libretto by Herbert Kretzmer..…based on the French production by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg…..based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Whew! Suffice it to say that after all those incarnations, a movie was surely on its way. And fans have certainly been waiting.
In case you’re the one in one thousandth who doesn’t know the plot, here it is: Jean Valjean (Hugh 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, god-fearing mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. But his former prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe), now a police inspector, finds him out and mercilessly hounds him until their day of reckoning on the barricades in Paris during the uprising of June 1832. Throughout those years Valjean has been raising an employee of his, Fantine (Anne Hathaway)’s daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as a woman) after her death. As a girl she was raised by two cruel and crass innkeepers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Cosette has a star-crossed romance with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a wealthy lad turned idealistic revolutionary; his comrades-in-arms are Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and the unsophisticated Eponine (Samantha Barks), who mournfully admits that her treasured Marius is smitten by Cosette.
The stage musical itself is far from a great work of art. Like all of Mackintosh’s musicals, it never knew how to disguise any kind of flaw. But of all those British musicals of the 1980’s, Les Miserables was certainly the best. In translating the musical from stage to screen, Mr Hooper has brought every flaw along with it and then some. The easiest flaw to objectify quickly is the mood of the piece. The musical has never, not in any incarnation, understood what the mood of Victor Hugo’s book was about. The one exclusion is Claude Lelouch’s 1995 adaptation. Everything here from the acting to the costumes to the photography is meant to evoke sadness and misery. But it doesn’t, or ever does. Everyone is instead merely doing misery, whatever that’s supposed to be; as if everyone involved had stopped reading the book after the title. Many people would asses that musicals can only do the action and never truly evoke anything. They are wrong. Miserably wrong. And Victor Hugo, a poetic idealist, wrote about something much, much more.
The difference between this film and The Passion of Joan of Arc – and the reason why this will be the last time Mr Hooper is ever compared to the great Mr Dreyer – is that the close-ups in Les Miserables feel like just another directorial tactic in a movie full of tactics. Mr Hooper films a great deal of it in eyebrow-to-lower-lip close-up. And when he isn’t doing that, he is cutting like a maniac in Ken Russell/Ridley Scott fashion. And when he isn’t doing that, he is shaking the camera hysterically between crowds of screeching extras. Each individual set piece is shaped as a blur of racket and chaos. There's no breathing room in his approach, visually or otherwise.
Another unbearably visible tactic is the decision to have all the performers sing the score live. This was done to give the performers more control of their process and, in turn, the capturing of spontaneous moments. I felt this idea (which has actually been done many times before) was successful in achieving that. But the method of the experiment never left the conscience air, once again constantly reminding me that I was seeing performers doing misery and singing live with their hearts on their sleeves. I still see Mr Hooper’s tactical effort.
I hesitate to say anything about the cast because there is really no need. They are all adequate. No more, no less. Mr Jackman, Mr Crowe, Ms Hathaway, Ms Barks and Mr Redmayne all have deeply emotional numbers to belt out – and all of them, once again, are shot by Mr Hooper (and cinematographer Danny Cohen) as if they are filming Maria Falconetti herself – and in every instance the result was deflation, not elation. Ms Hathaway’s song is the musical’s most famous number “I Dreamed a Dream” and thus is getting a lot of attention for her 3 minute close-up. I found her merely sufficient, as I did all the performers for the entire almost 3-hour running time.
But it’s not their fault. Nor is it Mr Cohen’s or Eve Stewart’s production design (a beacon of artificiality) or Chris Dickens and Melanie Ann Oliver’s editing (the “Master of the House” number contains some of the most atrocious editing of the year). I’m afraid the blame lies with the auteur behind the camera, a man who is clearly more interested in shovelling directorial decisions in your face instead of making a movie about anything in particular. I have yet to be wholly convinced by a Tom Hooper film, despite his undeserved Academy Award, but I felt this being his biggest undertaking I would at least experience an interesting experimentation instead of what it was: interminable agony.