One of the most-anticipated holiday releases is Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of the English translation of the French musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel: Les Misérables. And it’s a chance to break out one of the most useful phrases in all criticism, which I do try not to overuse: those who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing at they like. The musical is fantastically popular, and it seems there’s almost no way they could possibly screw it up, if they show even a modicum of respect for the fan base’s opinions. In a way, fans of Broadway musicals form a distinct — yet not disjoint — group that behaves in much the same manner as comic book fans.
The most notable difference is at musicals have the imprimatur of “culture” — and Hugo’s novel is one of those classics of literature than nobody has actually read, much less in the original — so the story is probably familiar to far more people. It traces the path of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he is pursued across early 19-century France by the law-and-order absolutist Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Valjean starts the film in 1815, on parole after serving twenty years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. A moment of kindness changes the course of his life, and he becomes an honest man, other than the minor fact of breaking his parole.
Eight years later, Valjean has adopted a new identity and become mayor of a small town and owner of a factory manufacturing rosaries. By he’s still not perfect; he allows his underling to cast out a worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), for supporting a child back home. She falls low, indeed, and Valjean vows to make right what he allowed to go wrong, just as Javert shows up and identifies him as the escaped parolee. He escapes and retrieves the child Cosette from a venal pair of innkeepers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen). They go into hiding again in Paris, where nine years later a grown Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) will vie with the innkeepers’ daughter (Samantha Barks) for the attentions of a dashing young revolutionary (Eddie Redmayne).
The budget of a major feature film allows for the action to be rendered far more expansively than the stage does, but big budgets do not imply big emotion. For the most part, the film feels hollow and self-conscious about it’s place. Any shot not designed to show off a giant, expensive set is assembled from close-ups — including one brutal one that cuts off Crowe’s forehead and chin — that seem more about actors’ egos than working to the fullest with the music. One particular multivocal section falls completely flat in a way no competent director would allow on stage.
And this starts to give the lie to the biggest hype surrounding the film: recording the vocals live on-set rather than having actors sing to playback. Yes, it allows the cast to act along with the singing more like would occur on stage — not to mention the ability to select from a wider variety of takes in editing — but it’s not clear that this is really such a huge improvement. Hathaway says it would feel “selfish” to sing “the pretty version” of her big number, emphasizing how devoted to her craft she is, but is the resulting melodramatic take that chokes half the lines out of the song any less self-indulgent? Besides which, pre-recording seems to allow for better mixing; group numbers are muddy and indistinct unless you’re already a big fan and know the score by heart.
That said, by and large the cast do a decent job with the singing, even among one not known for such talents. Hathaway has a solid voice for the musical’s most famous song, and everyone seems to forget that Jackman came from a strong song-and-dance backing before becoming Wolverine. Crowe is the least impressive of the bunch, as others have reported; his songs are perfunctory and his recitative is wooden. The flip side is that in terms of actual acting — you know, like what people in movies do — he’s head and shoulders above most of the cast, with only Jackman’s more frequent chances for scenery-chewing making him any sort of competition. If someone produced another straight — non-musical — adaptation of Hugo’s novel I would cast Crowe as Javert again in a heartbeat.
It’s also big in time, highlighting the fact that the stage version generally includes an intermission. While it’s not the longest film of the year — Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit, Django Unchained, and The Dark Knight Rises all surpass it, and Zero Dark Thirty ties it at 157 minutes — and it’s nowhere near as long as the five-hour non-musical version from 1934, the story started dragging well before the ninety-minute point.
But all the film’s flaws can be easily swept under the rug by the sympathetic eye that much of the audience will bring to bear. Those who are already fans of the musical are unlikely to be disappointed. For those who aren’t, it’s harder to say.
Worth It: maybe, maybe not. You probably already know.
Bechdel Test: fail.