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
Completely agree about the pacing and also the amount of 'sing talking'. Hathaway steals the entire movie with 'that' one scene. However, Crowe was piss poor in my view.
Vietnamthemovie on Dec 26, 2012
I thought it was great, and I hate musicals. I'll probably see it again.
Laconicus on Dec 27, 2012
An emotional masterpiece...brilliant work by all!
FlickaLid on Dec 26, 2012
Saw this last night and absolutely hated it, Tom Hooper should be flogged in public. 95% of his shots were closeups, and Russel Crowe and Sasha Baron Cohen were completely miss cast. I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but I've seen Les Miseables live and any stage production was 10 times better than this film. Hathaway and Jackman carry the movie, but it's hard to care about the story when we never see whats going on; back the damn camera up! I expected a lot more from the Hooper who I thought did a phenomenal job with The King's Speech. Going to see Django Unchained to cleanse my Christmas pallet.
Matt on Dec 26, 2012
I saw it years ago at Kennedy Center and loved it but this turkey is no way Les Miserables I remember at least from the trailers which have left me wanting to scream............... I predict its 'miserable' demise
Rosalee Adams on Dec 26, 2012
If you think that movie falls sort then you're a little out of touch. You've reviewed too many movies. Sorry that the cast didn't meet everyone's expectations but I thought it phenomenal.
perkfriday on Dec 26, 2012
I am a huge fan of Les Mis and was so disappointed by this poorly directed mess. The film is downright ugly. 3 hours of ugliness. The singing, with the exception of Samantha Barks and a couple others, was unlistenable. Hugh Jackman's whiney, screechy, over-stressed voice and Russel Crowe's constant foghorn impersonation completely eliminated any connection with their characters-- they were just plain hard to listen to and even harder to watch. The close-ups were so uncomfortable and overdone, I had to look away. Anne Hathaway's zombie rendition of "Dream a Dream" was one of the most uncomfortable moments of film watching I've ever endured. I get that Fantine is tormented and on the verge of death. I understand how intense and dark and horrible her situation is. But Tom Hooper literally shoved it in my face to the point where it was insulting. The whole song was one big tight shot, straight up Hathaway's snot-dripping, quivering nose. And while she may have found enough neck tension to force her vocal cords to squeeze out most of the right notes (when she wasn't talking or panting), she hardly did justice to the song in a musical sense. So, as a viewer, I was treated to 3 minutes or so of close-up snot dripping and mediocre singing. This was most people's favorite moment in the film. Fun. I do have to give kudos to Samantha Barks, who clearly fell back on her training and ignored Hooper's awful direction, allowing her to shine in this otherwise lackluster and disappointing production.
Al on Dec 26, 2012
ROFL................. Al you made my day with your comments It is cold and rainy here and I needed amusement to lift me into some brighter moments.
Rosalee Adams on Dec 26, 2012
I heard that critics for Chicago Trib and NY Times critiqued it for the live music.......................... Just the trailers left me feeling annoyed............Hathaway and Segfried sounded like nails down a blackboard......
Rosalee Adams on Dec 26, 2012
OK for one thing, Al needs to locate his medication and take a double dose or at least have a cookie. He sounds bitter and disillusioned in a way that couldn't possibly have anything to do with this movie. Sheesh man. Chillax. For another thing, the writer needs to bone up on French history because LES MISERABLES IS NOT ABOUT AND DOES NOT TAKE PLACE DURING THE FRENCH REVOLUTION. The French Revolution took place from 1789-1799. LM is about the June Rebellion, or Paris Uprising, of 1832.
JennyPennifer on Dec 26, 2012
THANK YOU. If one more person talks about the Les Mis and the French Revolution I will actually start to cry.
T. on Dec 27, 2012
^ is this spam?
castingcouch on Dec 26, 2012
Jericho on Dec 27, 2012
It never ceases to amaze me, Mr. Kirk, how you consistently seem to miss the very foundation of the films you review. Watch the freaking play. The WHOLE THING is sing-talking. They dumbed it down a lot for the movie because they knew that people who are ignorant of the art of operetta, like you, wouldn't understand it. My advice to you would be to research the movies you see just a bit before you go see them, much less review them, and actually find out what the picture being painted is supposed to look like. Mmmkay, pumpkin?
Danny Lybeck on Dec 27, 2012
With all due respect, this is the film adaptation of a musical, not a musical itself. I'm not ignorant of operatic form (or operetta) and had many of the same problems with the _film_ that Jeremy had. Just because you disagree with someone doesn't mean you're allowed to discredit their opinion on what is more or less a mute point. This film ultimately has to work as a *film*, regardless (and perhaps even in spite of) the nature of the source material. There is a huge gap between theater and cinema, and in my opinion one of the greatest failings of this adaptation is its failure to fully recognize or compensate for that (for example, the expository nature of the singing is frequently rendered unnecessary and laughable because we are watching a _film_, and need to be shown, not told).
ZI LA on Dec 27, 2012
Yes it might be in the theatre Danny, but the sing-talking doesnt work here on film and it falls flat. This film is seriously overhyped. It is not very good and I have seen it at a preview.
nathan on Dec 28, 2012
Saw the movie Christmas morning - big fan of the stage production, and I'm now a fan of the movie as well. I agree with the reviewer that the movie was both "overlong and in desperate need of some slowing down" - transitions could have been handled better, and there was definitely a sense of "we've got to trim this as much as possible in order to get this under three hours". That being said, I thought the singing was quite good overall, with standout performances from Jackman, Hathaway and Redmayne. I don't prefer Seyfried's vocal style, but it works well for her character and is a bright counterpart to that of Bark's darker Eponine. As for Cohen and Bonham-Carter, I felt the casting was spot on. Thenardier is supposed to be an oafish, overbearing buffoon, so Cohen seems to be the natural choice, don't you think? Crowe's singing is certainly not "ready for prime time", but I think the fact that he sounds more like the rest of us gives Javert a human quality that helps sell his character as a sympathetic antagonist. We can empathize for Javert along with Valjean because Crowe's Javert does not come off as haughty or pompous (as some stage versions I've seen have been). Overall, I think the movie's pace definitely needed some more work, but I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and thought the singing was well done.
Andrew Padgett on Dec 27, 2012
Good review. I wish you would have mentioned Hooper's penchant for 'shaky cam,' though. While I admire aspects of his direction (particularly the long, single-shot takes, as you mentioned), his use of 'shaky cam' is pretty unjustified. This is 'Les Mis," not a Bourne film, so keep the damn camera still, okay? It also really detracts from the pseudo-epic quality this film has. I also hated that there are numerous 'stage design' aspects to the film, but Hooper never commits to it fully, so the result is an odd blend of realism and what could be stage sets. What Wright did in "Anna Karenina" is much better (and more ambitious) which is, he committed fully to his aesthetic vision. Hooper just doesn't do that in this film.
ZI LA on Dec 27, 2012
New comments are no longer allowed on this post.