Let’s put it this way: If you don’t like the musical “Les Misérables” going into Tom Hooper’s film adaptation this holiday season, nothing on the screen will change your mind. Fans will no doubt be divided into love it or hate it camps, but surely even those who admire the performances of a sprawling cast that includes Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman, and Eddie Redmayne will admit that Hooper’s grasp of filmmaking is tenuous.
In bringing the long-running stage show about a French revolution (but not the French revolution; think of this one as a 19th-century Occupy Wall Street), Hooper has opted to stage everything as naturalistically as possible. Teeth are begrimed and clothes dirtied, and the unruly hairstyles of the cast could give the characters in “Lincoln” a run for their money. Hooper’s obsession with realism extended to having his cast sing live during filming, because they really needed to live through the crushing poverty and dirt as they emoted in song. Acting is for amateurs; these Oscar contenders felt every word.
And as led by Hathaway, they are hellbent on making you feel every word too. No one trusts the clunky score, and so every word, every emotion is underlined with the same Sharpie the makeup department employed beneath the cast’s nails. Hathaway’s noble prostitute is a quivering, tear-stained mess during “I Dreamed a Dream.” Jackman contorts his face in every conceivable shape to convey shame, fear, rage, and love during all of his songs. As student revolutionary Marius, Redmayne ensures that you know his big ballad “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is a sad one by letting tears stream down his face. The cast is all technique, no genuine emotion.
Not so the filmmaker. Hooper is nothing but technique, employing extreme close-ups, refusing to center the actor in the image, filming most songs with a shaky cam to remind us all that this is happening live, and, whenever a scene seems to feel not right, unleashing the forces of the weather. Pity poor Samantha Barks as lovelorn Eponine, who must deliver not one but two songs in pouring rain.
The movie musicals that succeed are the ones that acknowledge their worlds are stylized and craft a film around it. Hooper and company are so intent on capturing realism that no one has stopped to consider the obvious: No one, especially those bleeding out, is going to take the time to sing a song. Even with as many flubbed notes and poor breath technique as are captured here.
Critic’s Score: D
Directed by Tom Hooper
Casting by Nina Gold
Starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne