Les Misérables (Grade: C)
While the chorus in Les Misérables asks rhetorically “Do you hear the people sing?,” Tom Hooper’s film version gives a definitive answer: Yes. Loud and long, the adaptation of Broadway’s biggest hit struggles to hold itself together, like a drained soprano straining to hit the high notes on closing night. Lacking any stylistic cohesion—unless ill-framed close-ups count as a new cinematic look—Les Misérables jumps from (failed) realism to camp to pseudo-surrealism, with few memorable moments along the way.
Rehashing the plot of this cultural juggernaut seems unnecessary, but nevertheless: Opening in 1815, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been sentenced to hard labour for stealing bread to feed his family. He becomes the fixation of the hardened police inspector, Javert (Russell Crowe). Eventually escaping the galleys and the stigma of incarceration, Valjean assumes a fake name and becomes a wealthy factory owner. When a young woman, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is fired from his floor and falls into prostitution, he promises her on her deathbed to care for her child, Cosette (who grows into Amanda Seyfried). With Javert constantly on his tail trying to reveal his true identity (as love triangles develop for good measure) things come to dramatic conclusion against the backdrop of the failed 1832 June Rebellion. End recap.
Expected to be grandiose in all the best ways possible, Hooper drains the highly emotional tale of urgency. Instead of any narrative flow, the film feels like a series of shorts strung together, intermittently stopping and stalling for big numbers. Most likely a by-product of the choice to have the actors sing live-to-tape, rather than communicating a raw performance, the film feels fragmented and incoherent. Where a live cast can play off each other’s performances, gauging the pitch of the show night by night, here the parts never communicate or congeal.
To her credit, for the second time this year Hathaway is a standout in a messy and much hyped feature. (The first being Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.) Emanating all the sadness of “I Dreamed a Dream,” Hathaway sinks into the hyperbolic despair of the song, before dying out of the film as fast as she was introduced. Praise should also be offered to Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the Thénardiers, who come as fun reprieves, indulging in campy excess as opposed to X-Factor vibrato.
With Les Misérables Tom Hooper has done the impossible—ruined a fail-safe love story whose emotional pull is literally built into the fabric of the narrative. While the musical constructs a sense of continuity as characters share refrains, here the parts are atomized, merely bouncing off each other. In all the mouthy singing shot in close-up, the message of connectivity and revolutionary solidarity is swallowed up. And with it goes the dream.