It’s captured the hearts of millions. It’s been performed in every corner of the globe. Now, one of the most beloved stage musicals in history gets the big screen cinematic treatment in Tom Hooper’s hotly anticipated, lavishly produced and resoundingly uninteresting adaptation of Les Misérables. Overstuffed, dreary and dripping with sickening sentimentality, what starts promisingly soon becomes a two-and-a-half hour struggle to stay awake, one that also goes to show that all the stars in Hollywood will do you very little good if you’re making a musical and most of them can’t really sing.
Adapted with slavish loyalty from the beloved Boublil & Schonberg stage musical, itself based somewhat more loosely on Victor Hugo’s iconic nineteenth century novel, Les Misérable tells the tale of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman; Real Steel), a French convict recently released after serving nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Moved by an act of charity by a priest, Valjean vows to leave his dark past behind him, only to find himself hounded at every turn by the obsessive Javert (Russel Crowe; The Man with the Iron Fists), a prison guard turned police inspector who refuses to believe that the parole-breaker has reformed.
Fresh off an Oscar win for The King’s Speech, director Tom Hooper has clearly had the run of the place, and say what you will about his new film’s considerable problems, no one can deny that the picture looks expensive. Costumes are realised is glorious detail, while sweeping aerial shots over gargantuan sets contribute to an epic quality that theatre, by its very nature, simply cannot achieve. Hooper’s cinematography, characterised by a fondness for close-ups and bulging fish-eye lenses, has received its fair share of criticism. Yet for my money, his style actually captures, with a sort of intentional (or maybe unintentional) ugliness, the grim, tattered horrors of the lives of the impoverished masses, and the corresponding grotesquery’s of Paris’ wealthy elite.
Unfortunately, the film’s aural qualities aren’t nearly as splendid as its visual ones. Indeed, even in the opening scene, in which we are awed by the site of a chain gang hauling a massive galley into a dry dock, one major problem becomes immediately obvious: the music isn’t loud enough. How this might have happened is difficult to fathom – perhaps it has something to do with Hooper’s widely touted decision to have the performers sing live on set, as opposed to the more conventional approach of lip-syncing to pre-recorded vocals. (The theory is that this “revolutionary” approach gives the actors greater freedom to emote.) Whatever the case, the fact remains that between the crashing of waves and the clanging of chains, the music can barely be heard.
It’s an issue that recurs to various degrees throughout almost all the movie’s big numbers. At some points the singing is too soft and drowned out by the orchestra, while at other points, the exact opposite is true. To their credit, the chorus musters some level of gusto for the rage-fuelled “At the End of the Day”, as do the principals for the stirring “One Day More”. The same cannot be said, however, for the first rendition of what is perhaps the shows most iconic piece, and what should be its most rousing, the revolutionary war-cry “Do You Hear The People Sing?” Begun at a whisper and levelling out not much after, the tune bombs so disastrously you’ll be tempted to shout back “barely”.
Then there’s the matter of the cast. Despite his background in musical theatre, Hugh Jackman is tuneless as the angst-ridden Valjean, his lines more often spat-out or muttered rather than actually sung. Crowe at least feels physically right as the fanatically dutiful Javert – in fact were this a straight adaptation of Hugo’s novel, you might call it perfect casting. But, as anyone who has heard his band Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts could have told you, Crowe’s abilities as a vocalist do not match his abilities as an actor. Try and he might – and you do root for poor Rusty – too often his baritone sounds simply like shouting, as if he’s belting out his footy club’s theme song down at the local pub.
Yet despite all this, Les Mis is not an immediate failure. Although their singing is weak, the relationship between Valjean and Javert retains at least some of its power from the novel – a relationship steeped in questions of duty, justice, honour and redemption. It is also in the first hour that we’re privy to work of Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises), who’s perfectly cast as the miserable Fantine, a destitute factory worker forced to prostitute herself to feed her infant daughter. The one big star in the film capable of holding a tune, Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper – both in the fact that it’s emotionally devastating, and that is makes everything that follows feel flat and hesitant by comparison.
Moved by Fantine’s plight – and how could you not be – Valjean resolves to adopt her daughter Cossette (first time actress Isabelle Allen), who’s been left to board with the swindling innkeepers Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. Played with gleeful cunning and lack of class by Sacha Baron Cohen (The Dictator) and Helena Bonham Carter (Dark Shadows), the duo’s performance of “Master of the House” is the film’s second big highlight (although it helps that the song doesn’t require particularly strong singing voices, not to mention that it’s the only bit of levity in the whole entire show).
Sadly, it’s all downhill from there. Discovered against by the relentless Javert, Valjean and Cossette are forced to flee to Paris. For years they hide, even as the fever of revolution sweeps through the streets, gripping the hearts and minds of youths like Enjolras (Aaron Tveit; Gossip Girl) and Marius (Eddie Redmayne; My Week with Marilyn). The film already feeling bloated, the hurried introduction of these would-be rebels an hour-and-a-half in does little to ingratiate you to their cause, so much so that even when the military starts picking them off like flies, it’s almost impossible to care.
Speaking of not caring, feelings of disinterest are particularly strong when it comes to the insipid love-at-first-sight romance between Marius and the now sixteen year old Cossette (Amanda Seyfried; Red Riding Hood). Neither actor can sing worth a damn nor has any charisma worth speaking of, and as they bleat ad nauseum about their hearts full of love (despite sharing barely more than five-minutes of screen time together) you may find yourself hoping that Marius catches a bullet along with his comrades. Why Épinone (Samantha Barks), the unfortunate third wheel in their tedious love triangle, wants anything to do with him is totally beyond me. At least Barks, who played the part on stage, is a decent singer.
And it may seem like a silly complaint to have of a musical, but that is ultimately Les Mis’ biggest problem: regardless of how strong each vocalist may be, there’s just flat out way too much singing. The big, famous ensembles pieces come and go to various degrees of success, but it’s what’s in between that’s a killer, as each and every characters goes on and on, in never-ending solo, about what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, what they’re doing and what they’ve done. Perhaps it all works on stage – personally, I have my doubts. Clumsy exposition is clumsy exposition, no matter if it’s spoken or sung. And listening to it for two-and-a-half hours is a complete and utter bore.