Before my review of Tom Hooper’s film “Les Misérables,” I just want to preempt a few nastygrams by saying that I have tremendous respect for this musical. I studied it in school growing up, I’ve watched several performances of it over the years, and I know some of the songs well enough to sing along. Although I’m not exactly a diehard “Les Mis” devotee, I can appreciate the skill with which the story and the music are crafted. Both are woven together in a way that is compelling and enthralling.
That being said, Hooper’s adaptation is a disappointing cinematic regurgitation of the stage show that is downright boring. The only interesting moments come from specific performances and the small deviations the film makes from tradition.
It's understandable with a beloved property like "Les Mis," that Hooper would want to appease its fans, but he’s too slavish to the show. He didn’t need to keep the exaggerated stage makeup and try so hard to mimic the spectacle of the theater with his camerawork. Hooper follows the actors around excessively and features tons of face shots to capture grand emotions. These techniques become old quickly, because there’s little variation.
Not all of the major storylines in the film are emotionally engaging, which is another issue. Rivalry between escaped criminal Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and the cop pursuing him Javert (Russell Crowe) is absorbing and the struggles of the young mother Fantine (Anne Hathaway) are heartbreaking. It’s really the actors who bring flair to the characters that make their tales come alive.
The love story between Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and a revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) on the other hand, is completely one-dimensional, due to uninteresting performances and flimsy development of their romance. The rebellion aspect of the film is equally thin. None of the young men seem truly disenfranchised enough to rightfully rise up against an “oppressive” government, so why root for them?
Despite its serious tone, there are bizarre moments where the movie is actually humorous. That’s because Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are cast as the greedy innkeeper and his wife. Both are so well-known for playing absurd characters that they’re almost reaching self-parody, but at least they inject fun into the film.
When the actors and filmmakers are actually brave enough to take chances, this picture shines. Famous songs like “I’ve Dreamed a Dream” and “Castle on a Cloud” are performed in refreshing ways, which I love. I also dig that the singing was recorded by the actors on set instead of in a studio. Because the vocals aren’t all touched up, they have a fascinating raw quality. Ensemble numbers sound the best, creating the illusion of live theater and almost making you want to burst into applause when they finish. Even though not everyone’s voice is pleasant to listen to throughout, the risk of doing live recording deserves kudos.
Purists will hate this, but I think Hooper should have chopped thirty minutes out of the film’s two and a half hour runtime. Although it would have been a large gamble, this movie would have been much less boring toward the end. Because I felt like the story was over and things were being needlessly dragged out, I was restless for the last half hour.
As annoyed as I am about this adaptation’s execution, “Les Misérables” is still a smart musical. In the same year where a piece of garbage like “Rock of Ages” came out, it’s satisfying to see a filmmaker bringing an intelligent tale to the big screen in the hopes of getting new viewers hooked. I can respect that.