Director: Tom Hooper.
Script: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, based on the homonymous novel by Victor Hugo.
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Aaron Tveit, Helena Bonham-Carter.
A good-hearted crook is persecuted by a fanatical inspector after breaking his parole. After managing to successfully become part of society as an honest man, the demons of his past will arrive to haunt him, and his kindness will make him go out of his way to save other ill-fated souls.
Adapting such a well-known and cherished musical was bound to present a considerable number of difficulties for anyone brave enough to take such a task. Thus, it’s not surprising that after months of build-up and animated acknowledgement, the result is a flawed but enticing film.
The film begins with a sequence that resumes most of the problems that will appear throughout the evolution of the movie, many of which are related to its visual construction. Locations, for example, are mostly combinations between digital landscapes and built sets, but both look shabbily false in a film which strives to create an illusion of reality by making the actors sing on set and crowding their personal space with the camera.
The lightning helps little, for it creates unpleasant shadows which lack justification, thus becoming gratuitous and unexploited elements which lose all sense of dramatic meaning, a problem with spoils many elements of the film. From the unnecessary rupture of the fourth wall by characters looking straight at the camera, to shots which presented a character occupying half of the screen whilst the other half showed nothing of interest; the visual construction of Les Misérables is incredibly defective.
One of the most bothersome sins of the film is the overuse of the close-up. Although this instrument is commonly associated in filmmaking with moments of emotional disclosure, in the film it’s overexploited to the point of losing all expressive meaning and even disengaging the viewer.
Another weak point of the image comes with the fast-paced construction which makes it difficult to identify the temporal dimension of the story. Both acts of the movie seem to happen in just a couple of days, a mistaken impression caused by the rushed and never-ending flow of both image and sound. The best visual moments of the film are those which occur when the camera is static, when the tide of songs and movements seems to stop for a little while to let the spectator breathe.
The sound is a problematic element, too. Since the songs were recorded live, most of the actors’ mistakes are easily identifiable when watching the film, and although it might be argued that this practice allowed them to connect with the material directly on set rather than in a studio, it does bring the subject of cinema’s eternity versus theatrical ephemerality to mind.
It’s up for debate indeed, but it seems like Hooper forgot the nature of the media he was working with, and doing so took its toll in the final outcome. Musical films have been able to induce viewers emotionally without having actors sing live for decades. If the actor is good enough, lip-syncing shouldn’t be an impediment for his or her ability to be engaging.
The acting/singing skills of the cast were another convoluted factor of the movie. Some delivered weak acting paired with great singing –Redmayne, Barks-; others shone as actors, but not singers –Crowe-; and some were weak in both fronts –Seyfried. Whilst Hathaway and Jackman delivered acceptable performances as expected, two of the delightful surprises were Aaron Tveit and Daniel Huttlestone, whom were both likeable and quite talented.
Among all the cast, Tveit seemed to be the most comfortable when it came to acting and singing, as he understood the media without falling into exaggeration or self-conscious performances. His acting was subdued, but powerful enough to be believable, and from all the characters his Enjolras is the most enjoyable.
Other questions arise from the choices made in the film, for example: why was Thénardier (Cohen) the only one attempting a French accent? How did Valjean’s (Jackman) appearance improve so suddenly after leaving the docks? Why did characters find it so hard to recognize each other after the film presented almost no considerable change to their aspect? This questions could have been answered smartly had the film paid more attention to its construction, but alas, it didn’t.
In the end, the charm of Les Misérables derives mostly from an evocative disposition of the spectator, as well as some worthy moments and performances which salvage it from becoming a jumbled tale. It’s a good film, but definitely not the greatest musical endeavor of the last decades.
Verdict: guilty pleasure.