Overlong, moving, uneven, and manipulative, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables earns the distinct status of being 2012’s most paradoxical time at the movies. With Misérables, Hooper swings deep – for the fences – and wobbles from an utterly sincere attempt at a fully realized home run.
First and foremost, Misérables is supremely contradictory. It is unsubtle in its hovering on emotional triggers, occasionally bombastic, consistently self-indulgent, and completely exhausting. It paints its themes in broad colours, and would rather bowl you over than have you tease things out for yourself.
At 158 minutes, the film is actually rushed and cramped, with many of the film’s characters underdeveloped and getting minimal screen time before disappearing until the rousing curtain call. However, these features do not singlehandedly derail a film production, and are typical for a large-scale, big-budget, live-action musical extravaganza. They can also be easily overcome through ingenious execution.
Unfortunately, Hooper brings to the set his disconcerting penchant for wide-angle closeups, on display in his 2010 Best Picture winner The King’s Speech. What is unforgivable is Hooper’s overuse of hand-held camera. In some scenes, the camera reels drunkenly, zooming in, then backpedalling as if out of control. Furthermore, with the first twenty minutes characterized by laughably jarring editing, the film gets off to a rough start, but Hooper gradually finds a more appropriate rhythm.
The film’s acting and singing is firmly split down the middle. Russell Crowe is an uninteresting failure, trying too hard to sing convincingly and forgetting, in the process, to act. He’s the worst part of the cast, but not the only weak link. Amanda Seyfried has a tinny voice that only partially suits her character, and Eddie Redmayne sings nasally during their duets, which struggle to generate any convincing romantic sparks between the two. He delivers more efficiently when singing alone, especially during the memorable “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.” With his background on the stage, Hugh Jackman is a solid performer as Jean Valjean and rarely overreaches.
Hooper’s tactics, described above as serious flaws, work brilliantly twice: with Anne Hathaway’s tragic performance as Fantine, and with Samantha Barks’ role as Eponine. Their individual numbers, “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own,” are dynamic showstoppers that provide the film’s strongest moments, and stand leagues ahead of their closest competition.
Hathaway’s involvement is framed by an well-shot sequence of her descent into prostitution that culminates in a one-take rendition of one of the most recognizable songs in the original Broadway musical. Hathaway is devastatingly effective, broken and heartrending as the camera stares unblinking at her haggard face, violently shaved head, and half-starved body. It is a tour de force of physical and vocal expression; the showmanship left me open-mouthed. In ten minutes of screen time, Hathaway is captivating, creating one of the most powerful performances of the year and handily establishing herself as the Oscar frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress. Indeed, she is so good that the remainder of the film suffers dramatically due to her absence, and her brief reappearance at the end is a welcome relief.
Barks’ performance is even more gratifying, as she nearly equals an actress with significant more experience. Barks is a stunning emotional powerhouse and demonstrates a unique talent to the point of frustrating imbalance. Barks starred in Oliver! and the 25th anniversary stage production of Les Misérables in London’s West End before joining Hooper’s cast for the film version. Here, she is mesmerizing, ironically more successful than any of her co-stars at modulating her performance down to movie screen size without lapsing into histrionics, and simultaneously elevating Redmayne and Seyfried in numbers such as “A Heart Full of Love” and “A Little Fall of Rain.”
If Lincoln had minor pacing issues (mostly because of the dryness of the material), Misérables has pacing issues galore. There’s little sense of dynamism, a fault both of the original score and Hooper’s lack of imagination regarding staging and camera work, which tends to underline and boldface every emotional beat. In fact, there are moments early on in Misérables when viewers may feel like they’re about to witness a bona fide disasterpiece, one of those spectacular miscalculations that are almost as entertaining as a superb work of audacious ambition and scope.
Instead, Hooper’s adaptation lives in that okay-not-great, this-worked-and-that-didn’t in-between for which words like “better” and “worse” fall woefully short. If, by the film’s stirring final half hour, a majority of audience members find themselves weeping openly for the story’s plucky revolutionaries and young lovers, it’s less a testament to the strident music or erratic direction than to the fact that somehow the wheels don’t come off entirely.
It is undeniable that Les Miserables succeeds in transporting even the most resistant viewers on a swelling wave of feeling. But while they’re dabbing away tears, they might also wonder why they’re feeling less uplifted than run over.