Somewhere, buried deep inside the bloated, stultifying film adaptation of Les Misérables, is a story of oppression, suffering and salvation. If you can find it, kudos to you because I sure couldn’t.
Cameron Mackintosh’s juggernaut of a mega-musical is now wearing concrete shoes, weighed down by inept direction, literal-mindedness and bad acting. When it’s good, it’s boring, when it’s bad, it’s unwatchable.
Oh how I kept waiting for this film to move me. I expected the singing to be sub-par (as is the case with most movie musicals today), yet it’s the acting and the execution that make this pallid movie such a drag.
Apparently, Hugh Jackman - this century’s sad answer to Gene Kelly - felt compelled to bring Les Miz to the screen, making good on a project that had been years in development, only to continuously fall apart over casting and budgetary issues. I wish Mr. Jackman had let that bee in his bonnet go silent, because the film he and director Tom Hooper have come up with is the pits, a kitschy, lugubrious - and at 2 hours and 37 nauseating minutes, over long - dirge, relentless in its excess.
As directed by Mr. Hooper at his most lackadaisical, the film is a noisy, disconcerting piece of overblown hokum. Hooper films his actors in a farrago of queasy, claustrophobic close-ups as they employ the more is more method of acting. When Hooper doesn’t have a musical number or performer to zero in on, his direction becomes a frenetic jumble of cross-cuts and swooping camera angles. You get the sense that the director doesn’t have any faith in the material or your attention span.
Hooper’s decision to regurgitate virtually every note of the score on screen is also a curious misstep with unfortunate consequences. The interim scenes of dialogue-driven recitative feel perfunctory and mind-numbingly endless. And while I applaud Mr. Hooper’s one innovation, to film the singing live, the paucity of musicianship and strong voices on screen make the whole affair seem strained. In attempting to achieve intimacy and verisimilitude, Mr. Hooper has, paradoxically, made every song seem deeply artificial and laughably grandiose. He has over inflated material that wasn’t very subtle to begin with.
This is not to say that Les Miz couldn’t have been successfully adapted to the screen, but it would need to be seriously rethought to approximate the stage show. Alas, Mr. Hooper hasn’t made any changes or offered any ideas that might show an understanding of the differences between film and theater. Instead, he has merely placed a frame around the characters, and situated them in photorealistic environs, saliva, gaping mouths and all.
The cast is uniformly disappointing. Anne Hathaway can be an adequate singer, but her “I Dreamed a Dream,” pitched entirely on one high-strung level, doesn’t stir the emotions because her overripe emotionalism, and the proximity of the camera are far too distracting.
As for Mr. Jackman, the less said the better. I have never been a fan of his wobbly, steely voice, which was dismaying in Oklahoma! and is even worse here. His approach to the music exposes every slight deviation of pitch and, true to form, he takes great expressive liberties with his singing — sometimes prolonging, sometimes rushing phrases. His bleached tone tends to obscure the notes he is singing. At times, I thought he might be trying to talk-sing, but his inelegant phrasing made no sense musically or dramatically. His natural strengths - effortless charm, irresistible charisma - are oddly muted in a role that calls for stoicism and introspection.
Curiously, Russell Crow is the only person giving a believable, consistent performance that’s scaled for the screen. His voice may lack refinement (and any discernible technique), but he handles the music ably enough, and sings the material as written without any of the fussy, melodramatic flourishes that afflict the rest of the cast. (This is the first time I’ve seen Les Misérables where Javert’s only number, “Stars,” became the highlight of the show.)
Even watching the most talented members of the cast becomes an enervating experience. As madame Thénardier, Helena Bonam-Carter is uncharacteristically wan and gets no support from her co-star, Sasha Baron Cohen, whose scenery-chewing shtick has never felt more exhausting. As the idealistic Marius, Eddie Redmayne whips his whole body while attacking certain phrases, as if physically willing his larynx to cooperate. (I never does.) A trilly Amanda Seyfried is appropriately doe-eyed and vacant in the thankless role of Cosette. And as Eponine, the lovelorn street urchin, Samantha Barks is stymied, forced to rein in her usually impressive voice to accommodate Mr. Hooper’s style.
Quibbles with singing aside, the gravest sin of this movie is how boring it is. The stage Les Misérables zips along with breathtaking exuberance. The three-hour running time flies by as the show grabs your attention and keeps you engaged. Paradoxically, the film Les Misérables seems to lumber on and on with no end in sight. A little pathos goes a long way, but some decent direction would have gone even further.