Review: Tom Hooper's 'Les Misérables' Falls Short of Being Truly Great
by Jeremy Kirk
December 26, 2012
Bringing the Les Misérables musical to the big screen is definitely an improvement in scope from Tom Hooper's last film, and that one got him an Academy Award. The King's Speech director was going to move on to something bigger and better, but the amount of size necessary to take the musical version of Victor Hugo's classic story of romance and redemption during the French Revolution was going to need to be immense. Hooper's Les Misérables succeeds in that department, but the overall emotion and impact of the story - mostly due to its length and pacing combination - keeps the dream from being completely realized.
That scale is on display right from the opening sequence, a group of prisoners attempting to pull a ship into port by long ropes while the rough sea beats them with water. One of these prisoners is Jean Valjean, played by Hugh Jackman, a prisoner who is soon released from a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean soon disappears from his parole, and it's up to the obsessive inspector Javert, played by Russell Crowe, to bring him back in. But Valjean is a good man at heart, and his morals put him in the care of young Cosette, played by Amanda Seyfried, whose mother was a victim of the overbearing, French society. As the revolution builds in the background, a love blooms in the foreground between Cosette and a young revolutionary, and Jean Valjean grows more and more worried of Inspector Javert discovering him.
It's clear from the beginning Hooper wanted actors who could sing but who don't necessarily have trained vocals. This is mostly noticed in Crowe, whose days with his band "30 Odd Foot of Grunts" proved he could carry some kind of tune. He does well in Les Misérables, always keeping in tune particularly well in scenes where he's singing against Jackman. The point is Hooper clearly has his actors singing live on set, the untrained voices being too imperfect for it to be altered - much - in post or a prerecording.
The songs feel natural to this world, the hurt and sorrow felt in just about every line Anne Hathaway as Cosette's mother, Fantine, sings. The marriage of performance and direction makes her song, 'I Dreamed a Dream,' the most powerful moment of the film. Hooper chooses to shoot it all in one take, something you don't notice at first but only realize well into it that they haven't cut away yet. He also chooses to have Hathaway hanging on the edge of the frame, almost like the camera is too ashamed to look directly at her. Hathaway's performance in this scene - and in the whole movie, for that matter - is awesome, the moments where she appears to almost lose control very valid for the downtrodden character. It's a beautiful scene, definitely the high point of Les Misérables, and one of the most amazing single shots of 2012.
With Hooper's grand scope for the film comes a very long running time, and at 157 minutes, Les Misérables certainly has that. It's an odd criticism to say the film should have been both longer and shorter at the same time, but it's relevant to this movie. Almost as if he knows he's going to have a long movie, Hooper's scenes feel rushed, every one of them beginning right at the point of the scene and with little or, more often than not, no establishing of where we are or who we're observing. More time to breathe and take in what happened in the scene before while also getting ourselves set for the scene at hand should have been factored in. The way it is, audiences become exhausted well before the film's end, and by then, we just want everyone to stop sing-talking at each other.
But sing-talk they continue to do, well past the movie's rousing but more than a little hokey climactic, revolutionary battle scene. It's breathtaking in the visualization Hooper and his production design team have created here, but it can't help but call to mind the staged version of the musical. Hooper resorts to literal translation more than a few times, and it only amplifies the very real power he pulls out when he shows us something new. Some things are right out of history, and the design and execution of the Elephant of the Bastille is perfect.
Stellar performances all around, Hooper is absolutely a director who knows how to pull raw emotion out of his actors. Jackman's natural charisma makes Valjean that much more of a sympathetic character, and Crowe's obsession is at peak level. You know, when he's not concentrating so hard on his singing. These performances, Hathaway chief among them, and a few amazing in terms of sheer scale like the opening are reason enough to see Les Misérables. Overlong but in desperate need of some slowing down, it's not a well-paced film, and this keeps it from being something truly great. It doesn't falter enough that we want to see Hooper going back to shooting two people in a room exercising their voice boxes. He should continue his search for grander stories to tell, some that will make Les Misérables appear as a find launching point.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10