I have always loved this musical onstage, but was never so miserable as when I sat through all 157 minutes onscreen. LES MISERABLES–despite some exceptional musical performances–dies a torturous death by close-up at the hands of tone-deaf director Tom Hooper.
“LES MIS” as we familiarly call it, is the theatrical extravaganza put to music by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil, based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling masterpiece, and set during that other, less familiar French revolution– the student uprising of 1832. The criminal Jean Valjean (the miscast Hugh Jackman) is released after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, breaks parole, and is pursued by the relentless and rigid Inspector Javert ( the miscast Russell “who-knew-he-could-sing-a-note” Crowe. He can’t.)
There ‘s a subplot involving another poor wretch Fantine (the glorious Anne Hathaway) who slaves in a workhouse and finally prostitutes herself to support her little daughter Cosette who grows up to be Amanda “who knew she could sing a note” Seyfried. She can.
But first Cosette must be rescued by Valjean from her caretakers the Thenardiers played by Helena Bonham Carter in yet another thankless role as a craven hag married to a drunken, “Borat”-infused buffoon lazily played by Sacha Baron Cohen. The duo’s signature number soars onstage but slumps on screen.
In fact, the entire production feels sluggish; the director has but two moves, and manages to misuse one of them. He shoots the live, singing actors, un-dubbed, up close so we see their teeth, their vibrating vocal chords, their flaring nostrils and sweating pores. This is something we don’t get onstage and presumably want onscreen. His other move is a quick pull-out to a wide, overhead long shot.
Two moves are not enough to capture this tale with its sweep of history, and intimate, turbulent drama– all of which is powerfully captured onstage and on the page. This deeply un-cinematic movie rapidly becomes tedious instead of tense and sinks like a brick baguette.
In fact, some actors just don’t give us enough to look at. Russell Crowe who has a rock band, also has a bland colorless voice, and shockingly– lacks the threat the part demands. Whereas the fragile and emotive Anne Hathaway has an expressive theatrical vocal range that rivets us to her every tormented inflection. Her rendering of “I Dream A Dream” is already legendary and will secure her a well-deserved place at the Oscars.
Hugh Jackman’s casting is more complicated. A marvelous theatrical entertainer with a fluid voice, he is nevertheless too spindly for the role– physically and vocally. He lacks the robustness that this character of Herculean strength demands, and his surprisingly thin vocals disappoint, feeling strained and barely holding us to the grueling path he travels.
Hooper does further damage to his star when, for once, he fails to lock the camera down so that our eyes remain fixed on Valjean as he pours his tremulous, plaintive tenor into the stillness of a sung prayer for a young soldier’s life; thus is ruined the showstopping ballad “Bring Him Home.” Instead, Hooper has Jackman moving aimlessly through alleyways singing the song as if it were an afterthought. Now that is criminal.
By the time the beautifully-voiced Eddie Redmayne enters the picture as the young and in love Marius, the monotony had exhausted me. The ending couldn’t come soon enough as Jackman sang his deathbed theme, and those who had already met their maker, appeared as ghosts to bring him home. I fled the theater dying to restore my faith and see LES MISERABLES, again–onstage.