CHICAGO, December 29, 2012 – British Director Tom Hooper wants to make sure you feel, grieve, and weep in his film version of the beloved musical, “Les Misérables.” Unfortunately, “make” is the operative word.
Great filmmaking takes its audience on a journey. It is through this journey that we form a relationship – an emotional attachment – to a film’s characters: in this case, the miserable Fantine, the saintly Jean Valjean, the ruthless Javert, the innocent Cosette, and the self-sacrificing Éponine.
However, a film’s relationship with its audience cannot be forced and that is the central problem with Hooper’s ‘Les Misérables.’
It is easy to appreciate the film’s ambition at first-glance. From the beginning, we are whisked into the desolation of pre-Revolutionary France and the film’s $61 million production budget doesn’t skimp on recreating the cold, dark, and dreary landscape of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.
Mirroring the misery of its populace, Hooper’s cinematic landscape is one of gray skies, filth and wet, shadowy streets. Massive sets convey the feeling of hopelessness, of society’s cruel indifference to mankind’s struggle.
But what about the story?
True “Mis” fans will probably like this film. But will they like it because of Hooper’s filmmaking or in spite of it? Will they flock to the film for Hugh Jackman’s performance as Valjean or because of the enduring power of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s brilliant music and Alain Boublil’s lyrics?
If “Les Mis” continues to be a box office success, it will be due to the latter, not the former.
Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a story of suffering and sorrow, sin and redemption, love and loss. We feel acutely the moral injustice when Jean Valjean is imprisoned for nineteen long hard years after stealing bread to feed a starving child. We are together with Fantine in her darkest hour when she is forced into prostitution after being falsely accused of dubious morality and losing her job as a lowly factory worker. The French novelist’s soul-capturing story casts a glaring spotlight on humanity at its worst and…at its best.
So it seems somehow unsettling that the actors singing soliloquies in Hooper’s version come across as thoroughly self-indulgent as they do. After 152 minutes, the actor close-ups and the loud shout-singing directly to the camera all seem so gratuitous and cloying.
Throughout, the film’s set-up remains the same: a montage of scenes and cutaways that break for each character’s signature songs. There is no building process here. The film is merely a two and a half hour excuse to showcase A-list actors singing the musical’s most enduring hits.
Movie musicals are a touchy thing. Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” was epic. “Grease” with John Travolta was magic. “Grease II” with Michelle Pfeiffer (but without John Travolta) was corny and flat. I still have nightmares from Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages.”
In this post-Ashlee Simpson on SNL world, lip-synching is a serious no-no. Audiences may not be able to tell you who John Boehner is but they can spot a lip synch when they see one. Audience cynicism may well be the reason why the golden era of movie musicals ended long ago.
So what Hooper has attempted with “Les Misérables” is admirable. By recording the soundtrack live during filming, instead of pre-recording in a studio, “Les Mis” successfully overcomes the false acting note that lip-synching sounds. Here, music and acting are finally united. Schönberg’s amazing score deserves no less. We know that when Jackman is singing “Who Am I” he is in the moment and the true richness of that performance helps bring us closer to Jean Valjean, who he is and what he is feeling.
But the magical impact is spoiled by harsh camera angles and repeated close-ups of the actors in song, bellowing full-on to the audience. Other reviewers have called this “giant head” syndrome and I can’t help but agree. It is overwhelming and, by the end, cringe worthy.
At the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think what the actors were surely thinking: Is this my Oscar? Better make it count. Emaciated actors bellowing in song to camera? There has to be a better path to Oscar than this.
I have seen numerous stage productions of “Les Misérables” and never tire of its story or music. Hooper’s version is a memorial to this beloved musical.
But it doesn’t stand “on its own.”
William J. Kelly, a commentator and satirist, writes for the Washington Times Communities and other publications including the American Spectator and Breitbart.com. He is an Emmy award-winning TV producer based in Chicago.
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