Les Mis the film has one fatal flaw. It is not Les Mis the stage show.
Tom Hooper, the director of Les Mis must really enjoy polishing his Oscar for Best Director of The King’s Speech (2010) because Les Mis is, to put it best, what a very clever friend of mine calls “Oscar bait.” It is big, glossy, has star power, elaborate sets and costumes, and tremendous musical numbers that millions of people around the world know and love passionately. What is there not to love?! Ha, Plenty.
To begin with, the film was proudly strutting in front of the other Best Picture Oscar Nominees rather loudly taunting, “We’ve got Wolverine, Cat Woman, Gladiator, Gretchen Wiener, and a cute British boy, yes we do, we’ve got all of them, how ‘bout you?!” Not good form. The film is about as discreet at flashing its big barricades at the Oscar committee as the “lovely ladies” in the film are at propositioning sailors on the docks. But there is no shame in that (in fact, I don’t think shame is allowed to exist in Hollywood). And I will not hold it against the film that is it pretty and shiny. A film getting gussied up and making a good impression on the Oscar committee is really what the Oscars are about (celebrating the magnificent achievements of film over the last year? Meh, only in very specific and limited ways).
Les Misérables, or, as I like to think of it, The Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, takes place 30 years after the French Revolution. It is the story of prisoner 24601’s (Jean Valjean’s) journey of redemption, Fantine’s desperate struggle to provide for her daughter, Cosette, and Inspector Javer’s thirst for order and justice. Oh, but that’s only act one. Act two we get more desperation, the patriotic verve of starry-eyed Marius, the invisible lovelorn Eponine, a grown up Cosette, and a smallish rebellion. Of course Valjean and Javer are still chasing after each other (They pretend to hate each other but I am really not sure…I could swear I saw some looks between Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman).
Anna Hathaway did justice to the role of Fantine, giving an emotional performance of the iconic song “I Dreamed a Dream.” After the fame the song received when Susan Boyle sang it nicely on America’s Got Talent, it was a blessed relief to see it sung by Hathaway in such a true rendition of the lyrics, a reflection of the horror one might feel to realize they are in an inescapable living hell. Yet while her performance of the song was filled with the desperation due it and was moving to watch, the scene did not reach far enough out of the screen to deeply affect me. I heard and saw Fantine’s pain, but I was not engulfed by it. Instead of being part of the song, I felt outside it. Instead of yearning for the alternate, happier life that was so close to being and is hinted at in the hidden major chords of the song but is always just out of reach, I felt pity and the crushing power of a cruel reality. This is not a wrong feeling, inference, or portrayal, and the film version might even be a more accurate reflection of the novel than previous versions I have heard. But what I love about musicals is that they have a way of portraying reality and conveying emotion so that the audience is completely submerged into the world of the film and the emotion of the moment. I needed Les Mis to feel like a musical for “I Dreamed Dream.” And you know, the rest of the film as well. I needed more than just a stirring performance of a gritty version of a historically somewhat accurate dramatized French reality. Instead of being part of the song, yearning for the alternate, happier life that seems hidden in the final major chords, I simply felt pity. Les Mis has made me feel so much more in the past, I cannot help but feel cheated when it only draws out simple feelings from me and does not overwhelm me with complex emotions.
But what has been just as much the talk of the town (the world, rather) as Hathaway’s performance (which did win her an Oscar) is the use of live action singing and recording. Instead of using sound dubbing in one form or another as all movie musicals have done before it, the actors of Les Mis sang for every take, resulting in both an editing and shooting nightmare, but theoretically a more realistic performance. This technique is tricky though, for do we actually want reality when we go to a musical, be it on stage or on film? This is a mixing of the magic’s, which in one way, might bring in the musical skeptics and win them over, but one the other, serves as a distraction when we are so close to the actors faces and bodies as we are in film. Because the camera’s/audience are so close, the actors had the artistic choice to whisper or even cry the lyrics. This is a choice only available in a film version of the musical, but one that drastically changes the meaning of the songs and makes the film seem more on the side of reality than the more fantastic side of musicals. While these close and intimate moments might have been more realistic, they did not pull me more into the film or the musical.
This is even more exaggerated with Hooper’s obsession in this film with close ups. Yes, we see all the crinkles and creases and tears, but we also see throats and mouths wobbling. This actually did not bother me much; it was noticeable but did not take me out of the film. But several other people told me they not only noticed but also were bothered by Redmayne’s head wobbling when he sang. As the audience, being able to so clearly see that the actors are singing in real time within that shot is not something we are used to seeing. It is not something we expect of a film musical. Even in stage musicals you usually cannot see that well unless you are in the first few rows, which having been in that situation, does take away from some of the magic. Could this technique start a new tread in the movie musical? Who knows, but one way or another it is an awful lot of trouble for something that may not be entirely effective, and Hollywood does not like to take risks.
I think Hoopers goal was to make Les Mis feel real. But when I went into Les Mis, knowing and loving the music, I wanted to feel compelled against my will to sing along, or have my breath too taken away for me to sing. I went into the film wanting a musical. I grew up seeing and loving the 10th anniversary performance on a VHS from PBS and from seeing the live show once, I absolutely had certain expectations of what I wanted Les Mis the film to be. I tried to be open minded, but for the majority of the film I didn’t feel like I was watching a musical. And I could not be so open minded as to tell myself to not think of it as a musical. I kept waiting and hoping to be caught up in the grand swoop of a musical, but as I shifted my weight in the seat that had been comfortable in the distant past of act one, I felt as if I were watching a really depressing drama that happened to have music. I know this is not the 1940’s and Hollywood is not currently a big producer of musicals, so was it really fair for me to expect Les Mis to feel like a musical?
Yes, and here is why. Every single person involved with the making of this film knew that Les Mis is a beloved book and the forth longest-running musical in Broadway history. Those two collective fanbases encompass millions of people who are passionately devoted to Les Mis and would go to see the film with many, many expectations and preconceived notions. Hooper attempts to appease the rabid stage show fanbase by paying homage through having a cameo appearance by Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean, as the Bishop in the film. Likewise, when Enjolras is shot and his body falls out the window, his body is in the same limp, fallen, hanging upside down position as in the stage show. Such homage’s are appreciated, but barely begin to ease the painful separation and differences of the film from the stage show (I have never read the book and cannot speak to how the film does or does not accurately depict it.)
In the film they were trying to do something different. And they did. But why mess with a beautiful, powerful thing, unless you know you are making it better? It seems that Hooper also had this thought and thus decided to go all out. Though the decision to go all out or all in as it may be, is not really a choice once you are making a musical. You have to go all out with a musical, but that does not mean GO CRAZY AND MOVE THE CAMERA ALL THE TIME AND A LOT. An artist in whatever form or medium can never know for certain that what they will create will be great. It is a risk. But Hooper had a damn good starting point and for the vast majority of the film I did not feel that he had expanded upon the depth and pain, and power of Les Mis the musical. He just made it different. In making Les Mis into a film he tried to make it feel like a film. He tried to do a lot, and in my opinion “a lot” was not necessary and in fact was far too much. I think Hooper is a really good director, but he needed someone to tell him “stop trying to be an auteur and just make the damn movie!” Clearly, either that person does not exist or he did not listen.
Hooper’s choice to focus primarily on the actors’ faces by almost solely using close-ups during the songs felt like he was putting the expansive songs in straitjackets. In his attempt to give the audience what they cannot have in a theater, that is, an up close and personal view of the myriad of emotions washing over the actors’ faces, Hooper limits the viewers’ experience and stifles the emotional power of the songs and their effect on the audience. In “I Dreamed a Dream,” Hooper does not give the audience the option to look away. The only thing we are given is Hathaway’s face. The forcefulness of this cinematic choice seems to have a polarizing effect on the audience. It feels claustrophobic, but for many filmgoers the entrapment of the scene parallels what Fantine feels and in that way, perfectly matches what is emotionally happening during the song. She cannot escape and neither can we. Some find this moving; unfortunately I felt manipulated, that the song was missing crucial moments of body language which could have compensated for Hathaway’s less than operatic voice.
But one scene I do feel the close-up was effective in was the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” It is a good choice for the close-up because it should feel contained, but Hooper also intercut with shots of the room to emphasize its emptiness and how very alone Marius is. The close-up of Marius was so gorgeously filmed I wondered why Hooper kept switching points of view without apparent purpose instead of just staying in close-up. With this scene, instead of feeling like I could not escape from the close-up and resenting Hooper for it, I did not want to look away. Because he was so unvarying in shot choice during the other songs, the close-ups in the musical numbers mostly did not feel like deliberate decisions. Just spontaneous decisions based on mood (“Ok, let’s go for a right profile on this one for no reason”). But “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is different because it does feel deliberate. Not every shot is filled with purpose and Hooper gets a bit lost at points, but ultimately the song and the scene come together beautifully in a way that should satisfy even the most hardcore Les Mis stage show lovers.
Otherwise, in the songs with groups of people, the camera is everywhere! In scenes such as “Master of the House” and “Do You Hear the People Sing,” it is quite effective. But the chaos of these scenes with the additional chaos created by the frequent camera movement and jarring editing make it difficult to catch all the delicious and grotesque details. As Fred Astaire said, “Either the camera will dance, or I will.” But clearly Hooper was never given this advice or he blatantly ignored it. He has the actors and the camera dancing which makes so much chaos that you are rushed from shot to shot in a desperate attempt to fit everything in and you cannot appreciate the hilarity of the Thenardiers or the inspiring rise of the people.
I said it from the beginning; the film’s fatal flaw is that it is not the stage show. The best way to make this point is to give an example. I admit that my love for the 25th anniversary cast could be influencing my opinion of the performances in the film. Fortunately, there is one person in the film who was also in the 25th anniversary performance of Les Mis. Here is Samantha Banks performing On My Own for the 25th Anniversary.
And here is her version from the film.
Even though I enjoyed the film version and I think she has one of the strongest voices in the film cast, I still think her stage performance far outstripped the film version in terms of emotion. But maybe that is just the Broadway baby in me, wanting a big time Broadway show.
Looking back on the film a few months later, even though I clearly have several critiques, there were also a few moments of the film that I found exceptionally moving. One such example that I was both moved, and frustrated by, was in the final scene with the epic barricade. Finally, after 2 hours sitting in the theater the audience got the epic sweeping moment we crave from musicals and I finally got chills. But I was confused as to why there is a giant barricade in heaven. Wait, it was heaven right? Cause all the dead people were there and they looked happy…but lets forget my state of confusion. It was a grand ending, indeed, but instead of a grand ending that would make me sing as I walked out the theater, I was frustrated. Did I really just sit through 155 minutes so the last two could be truly epic?! The high note of the ending (pun intended) and the sporadic moments of poignant emotion throughout the film were not enough to carry me singing and dancing out the theater (which has been know to happen with me. In the defense of Les Mis, I did have to use the bathroom urgently so exuberant movement and wasting time was not my first priority). Another deeply moving moment was when Javert sees the bodies of the young boys in the alley after the battle and he pins a medal on the body of Gavroche. This is not something from the stage musical version, but a moment that Russell Crowe added and it is absolutely beautiful. It adds a little humanity and tenderness to Javert’s martial personality of harsh justice, law, and order.
Hugh Jackman overall gave an impressive performance, and physically went above and beyond to become Jean Valjean, going without food or water for 24 hours to gain the hallowed look of his face. The transformation of prisoner 24601 to Monsieur le Mayor without Javert recognizing him is believable, which was a focus of Hooper and Grant.
But frankly, I was most excited when I was surprised by Colm Wilkinson’s appearance as the Bishop. And an audience member’s greatest moment of excitement watching a film should never be for a cameo appearance. Unless you are at a Muppet movie.