It took almost twenty minutes for Tom Hooper’s manic insistence on live singing from the cast of "Les Misérables" to win me over - and it took Broadway veteran Hugh Jackman in the protagonist role of convict Jean Valjean, breaking parole as he sets out on a new, Godly path in life, to do it. For a while, the novelty of the idea carries the film, particularly during Anne Hathaway’s gutsy rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" - and that despite the uncomfortable, superfluous extreme close-ups Hooper forces down his audience’s gullet every time a person is singing solo; he’s unwilling to let us forget that dammit, these people are singing live! Ooh hey, here’s another plaintive song from someone living out a life of misery - let’s zoom in to be sure you know it’s all live! Did I mention that the actors sing live? Perhaps we should zoom in closer to make sure it’s really, really clear.
It’s no wonder the cast is filled with film stars; stage actors would have had difficulty performing with a camera four inches from their faces.
Ironically, the gamble pays off, particularly for Jackman and Hathaway - particularly Hathaway, whose performance as Fantine, the factory-worker turned whore who dies and entrusts her daughter Cosette to the reformed Valjean, will justifiably earn her awards. Some of the unknown actors - notably Samantha Barks as Éponine and Eddie Redmayne as Marius - also fare well with Hooper’s one-shot mania. While those performances are ringing through the theatre, the film soars with lush orchestrations and the beloved melodies of Claude-Michel Schönberg (if not the occasionally unfortunate translations by Herbert Kretzmer of Alain Boublil’s original French lyrics). The fact is, it’s almost impossible to screw up "Les Misérables" on film, given its hugely successful stage incarnations; people have been waiting for the musical to hit the screen for decades.
Hooper nearly accomplishes the task. As a foil to Hathaway, Russell Crowe’s Javert is barely tonal, his voice emanating like a choked, thin wheeze. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham-Carter manage to make the Thénardiers largely un-funny. And Aaron Tveit is the most uninspiring Enjolras I’ve seen. Even Amanda Seyfreid, who does her best with the shallow character of Cosette, is out of her vocal league singing the higher soprano parts. Unfortunately, many of these actors also receive Hooper’s close-up treatment, which underscores their inability to measure up to the more effective performances.
Much of these shortcomings might have been more effectively masked had Hooper not made so much of his central conceit (did I mention they sing live?) - and the film might have been able to rise despite them were it not for Hooper’s inability to film scale. "Les Misérables" on stage is a larger-than-life production, made so by its towering sets and smart use of turntables on a largely empty stage to give the impression that Paris in the early 1800s is sliding past the proscenium. On film, "Les Misérables" should have felt epic, particularly in an age of escalating budgets and CGI. Hooper spends too much time servicing the musical and literally no time attaching the plights of its characters to the causes of the insurrection - which, incidentally, were widespread famine and cost of living increases compounded by a cholera epidemic that wiped out 18,000 Parisian residents. The uprising itself involved thousands of insurgents and 25,000 soldiers who pinned them to the Faubourg Saint-Martin, where nearly 800 people perished. In the film, Hooper makes the event look like two dozen students threw some rubbish into the street and a few of them were killed by a small phalanx of national guardsmen led by a mouthy Frenchman with a megaphone.
The survival of hope in the face of incredible adversity and the determination to stand up for what is right in the face of overwhelming oppression is the central theme of Victor Hugo’s novel, and on stage that theme rings to the balcony; it’s lost here. Instead, "Les Misérables" has been reduced to the exploitation of a gimmick. True fans of the show might sing along with Anne, Hugh and Russell in the moment, enjoying the music in an incarnation that doesn’t cost them $100 - but they’ll ultimately wonder why the film comes with a stale aftertaste.