When I see a movie in theaters, I will write the five things you need to know about it. Additional note: I have been a little behind in my writing turnover since the holidays. Expect more prompt delivery in the new year.
5 Things You Need to Know About…
1. Tom Hooper, winner of the 2011 Best Director Oscar for The King’s Speech, directed Les Misérables. For some, who thought that The King’s Speech was a monumental motion picture deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award win, this should come as welcoming news. How wonderful for one of the industry’s most impressive young auteur voices to tackle the beloved stage musical! For others, including myself, who remember the monotone and less than engrossing visual and storytelling boredom that permeated The King’s Speech, this intel is bleak. Unfortunately, many of the too flat or too sharp moments in Les Misérables seem to be consistent with the kind of filmmaker Mr. Hooper has been (Even the mostly successful John Adams from HBO, with many episodes directed by Hooper, has a similar tone. At the time, I thought it was just the conditions of an American Revolution in the wintery Northeast, but now, I understand Hooper’s role). The result of Hooper’s muted monotony is a movie that struggles to find emotional crescendos (some of the incredible performances trump this trend) that are so pervasive in the live stage experience. The single-shot song performances are used too frequently and in some of the wrong places. Hooper creates a world of the play that is successfully intimate and personal, but never fully realizes the external circumstances and historical stakes that surround this epic tale crafted by Victor Hugo. The parts are there, but the sum never adds up.
2. Anne Hathaway deserves to win the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award at this year’s ceremony. Her brief performance as factory worker turned prostitute Fantine in the first act of the movie is revelatory. I freely admit that I am and always have been a member of Team Anne (it is not hard to find a member of her surprisingly feisty group of detractors that openly do not respond well to her “earnestness”), but after her four minute and thirty eight second performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” you cannot help but catch your breath from the sheer brilliance of what you have just beheld. She is raw, unwavering, and FEARLESS. Hooper’s decision (more on this in a bit) to have his actors sing live may constrict the best possible vocal performance, but it allows the character to explore the song in an unleashed and unencumbered manner. Anne Hathaway takes this opportunity to the most incredible place, delivering a career defining (even if all too brief) performance.
3. Albeit perhaps used in too many instances, Hooper’s decision to have his actors sing live provides a forum for some of the most memorable song performances ever on film. Combined with one-take, single shot execution, Hooper creates individual Les Misérables music videos that would have swept any past VMA ceremony. The most successful songs, besides Anne Hathaway’s “I Dreamed a Dream” are Samantha Barks’ (“It’s raining!”) “On My Own” and Eddie Redmayne’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” The latter song, positioned so late in the long musical saga, crept up on me and then surprised as the most uniquely intimate and relatable rendition of this Marius vehicle that I have ever heard. Eddie Redmayne is stunning as Marius and his delicate delivery and pained mourning of his fallen comrades is the highest peak of the movie besides Anne Hathaway’s early appearance. Samantha Barks as Eponine, one of the few lead actors who also played her role on stage, came alive within Hooper’s structure on an intimate song that likely benefits from a live audience to ride the emotional wave. She manages to redefine “On My Own” as a most personal and beautiful soliloquy through restraint and a dose of Ms. Hathaway’s fearlessness.
4. The Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert conflict and ongoing battle that is central to the story of Les Misérables is unsuccessful on film because of the casting of Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. First, I give both actors tremendous credit for their effort, commitment to the work and the structure of intimate live singing that Hooper has created, and for managing to find several moments of beauty and emotional connect. In Russell Crowe’s case, his is simply miscast as Javert. Yes, his vocal chops (a long-time member of the rock band, 30 Odd Foots of Grunt) may not be traditional musical theater, but even more so, his best work on screen has always been as an underdog (Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, The Insider) achieving amidst great adversity. Javert is in power throughout the movie and Crowe seems uncomfortable there. Even when Javert has more introspective moments, Crowe’s performance feels oddly unearned. Much of the credit (or in this place blame) has to go to Hooper’s World that does not allow a brooding talent like Crowe to ever come out from under the mono tone. As for Hugh Jackman, a likely nominee for a Best Actor Academy Award, I never fully appreciated his performance as Jean Valjean. Jackman has a classical musical theater voice and he is certainly competent here, but I think he would have benefited from pre-recorded vocals more than some of his other cast mates. His voice will never be transcendent, but I do think some of Valjean’s most iconic songs call for the vocal to be able to transform and inspire and Jackman will never be this kind of performer. Jackman seems small and weak here in role of great size and scope. Again, Hooper seems all over this and the oft choices to play down moments that should be played up, but somewhere in the casting and performance, Hugh Jackman feels a bit out of place.
5. Les Misérables is a movie wearing a motion picture’s story and material that despite some of the best individual song performance moments in movie musical history (Anne Hathaway!!!), stalls in Tom Hooper’s world of tedious sameness, monotone execution, and visual monotony. Not including a wide lensed opening segment with a gaunt and shackled Hugh Jackman, the movie never captures the epic and historical backdrop and stakes of the French Revolution that the stage version manages to convey so successfully. This version gets the intimate and personal, but never understands how the momentous nature of the external circumstances informs these internal struggles. The Les Misérables movie is a series of singular songs and performances that struggles to amount to the epic composition of the source material.
David J. Bloom can be reached on twitter @davidbloom7 and writes about pop culture and the NBA for Bishop and Company. He writes weekly TV columns on Afterbuzztv.com (next up, Fox’s “The Following”) and his weekly THE CHALLENGE: BATTLE OF THE SEASONS Power Rankings can be read on Derek Kosinski’s ultimatechallengeradio.com.