Following on from the motor-mouth success story The King’s Speech, former Biker Grove TV director Tom Hooper replaces regal England for 19th century France in an adaptation of the longest running musical of all time, Les Misérables. After snapping up a few awards at the Oscars, the two and a half hours of singing left me emotionally exhausted.
Whilst it’s virtually impossible to condense Victor Hugo’s 1,900 page novel, Hooper embraces the source material’s ability to move at a more leisurely pace than the hurried stage show. A three-decade spanning story of a strong French peasant named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), serving a nineteen-year prison sentence after stealing a loaf of bread. Breaking his parole, he spends the next 27 years hunted by resilient prison guard Javert (Russell Crowe). Seeking redemption by being charitable to the down and out Parisians he meets along the way, including including a factory girl turned prostitute (Anne Hathaway) and her daughter Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).
With extensive training in musical theatre, and a very burly set of shoulders, Valjean is very much the character Jackman was born to play. He does pretty fantastically here; omnipresent and carrying what is otherwise a pretty tough mainstream sale.
The biggest hype around Les Mis is Hathaway, and rightly so. While her screen time amounts to a miniscule fifteen minutes, she is sensational, with her rousing rendition of I Dreamed a Dream a genuine tearjerking moment. Unfortunately, it comes within the first fifth of the film’s running time, and things only go downhill from here.
The supporting cast go from the serviceable to the annoying. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen put in tedious pantomimic performances as the corrupt Master/Mistress of a local watering hole. Elsewhere, young British hopeful Eddie Redmayne pouts throughout as young, hopeless romantic Marius, who’s Muppet falsetto is balanced surprisingly well by the cruelly overlooked, formidable presence of newcomer Samantha Barks as unrequited lover Éponine.
But then there’s Russell Crowe. Oh, Russell. While he looks at home in Paco Delgado’s nicely designed period costume, the Kiwi’s voice is a quivering whimper in comparison to his fellow cast members. Trying so desperately to hit the notes that he forgets to act; wandering across the gaudy set design looking more like Oliver Twist’s Mr. Bumble than a fearsome upholder of the law.
An appropriate comparison, actually. When battle commences on the streets of Paris, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Dickens’ masterwork. It’s in the drab cobbled streets, the squalor, prostitution alcohol swilling, and an annoying little Artful Dodger of sorts who has a remarkable cockney accent for someone so young, and so French. Unlike that childhood favourite, Les Mis is too depressing and evocatively clawing that it is never an enjoyable viewing experience.
Such grandiose pastoral ugliness is juxtaposed with Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen’s insistence for filming everything in low-angled close up. Effectively, Hooper wants it both ways: to be epic and claustrophobic. It works very sparingly in the smaller, character monologue moments. But, more often than not, the one-take, continuously moving handheld camera work is incongruous to the brilliant musical composition, and could make you feel a little nauseous.
Despite it’s many flaws, Les Misérables is a film that stinks of self-righteousness. It wants to be loved, to be cried over and be revered as a masterpiece. While Hooper and co give it their best, melodic shot, the film is ultimately a grueling watch. An experiential cinematic endeavor, you’ll come out either singing its’ praises, or running for cover. Either way, it’s pretty miserable stuff.