Brazenly foregoing the prerecorded vocal tracks on which its contemporaries rely, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables was performed and recorded live on set—a gimmick claimed to be a revolution in the production of movie musicals despite having been standard operating procedure through the 1930s and having even been revived, nearly 40 years ago, by Peter Bogdanovich’s under-seen Mark Sandrich homage At Long Last Love. This assumes that the use of live music has an advantage over the more common alternative, lending immediacy to every lilt, pause, and impromptu gesture, liberating actors from the strictures of a fixed soundtrack and granting them an uncommon freedom to modulate their performance on the fly. The idea is that, should the mood strike, a performer may add a beat mid-bar as though choked-up with emotion, their dramatic license with the material thus extended liberally and their performance, we are told, made immeasurably better and more real.
The opportunistic Les Misérables proceeds from the assumption that virtuosity is paramount and authenticity is self-evident, which is why it so confidently emphasizes the novelty of live singing. It seems obvious within minutes that the effect was difficult to achieve, and it’s the film’s hope that our awareness of that difficulty will be enough to impress; like a metal guitarist tearing into a conspicuously elaborate solo, the point isn’t so much that it sounds pleasing, but that the act of pulling it off looks impressive. Flaws—and there are a great many that would have never made the cut were this a perfectible studio recording—are conveniently swept under the rug of candid expression, a necessary consequence of the film’s more virtuous approach to be regarded less as mistakes than as proof of its sincerity. What’s especially galling about all of this isn’t that it smacks of underhanded exploitation (though playing off our skepticism of cinematic artifice to exaggerate its pursuit of something real is indeed a cheap strategy), or even that it presumes superiority over those comparatively stale and phoned-in musicals that deign instead to record songs the easy way. No, the worst quality of Les Misérables‘s live singing is simply that is puts too much pressure on a handful of performers who frankly cannot sing.
This problem becomes apparent almost immediately, when, after overseeing an ostentatiously shot chain gang, the unwaveringly moralistic Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) releases a down-and-out Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) after serving his absurdly unjust 19-year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Those familiar with the stage musical will know that this early encounter sets the tone for the rest of the work, establishing immediately its theme of thwarted redemption and inciting the bulk of the action to come, and the difficulty every production of this text encounters is convincingly selling a bitter rivalry based on nothing more than Javert’s belief that a criminal can never be morally exonerated. It’s a flaw of the source material (a result of condensing a 1,500-page novel into a three-hour play, presumably) that Javert’s enduring pursuit and persecution of Valjean is based on so dubious a dedication to the letter of the law, but a strong performance goes a long way to at least making it seem emotionally credible, if not, say, psychologically so. Crowe, despite his considerable talents as a dramatic actor, is plainly incapable of presenting Javert’s convictions believably, starting with the embarrassingly obvious fact that acting well while singing is way beyond his reach; his warning to Valjean to heed his words and remember his name is delivered with such flatness and with so little affect that it’s difficult to think of anything else. And this, unfortunately, is only the beginning of the musical breakdown—just the first of the nearly 50 songs that comprise the three-hour film.
Translating the stage play into an entirely sung-through movie musical was nothing short of audacious, to be sure, but as a filmgoing experience the result is wearying, even when the songs themselves are capably performed. As has already been repeated ad infinitum, Anne Hathaway’s one-take rendition of showstopper “I Dreamed a Dream” may well prove definitive, its to-the-rafters bleating a call for instant waterworks. But its success as a standalone number has the unintended consequence of making everything else look dull by comparison, exacerbated by the fact that it comes and goes so early. When Hathaway’s Fantine departs from the narrative, barely an hour into the proceedings, she leaves a gaping hole in the cast that no abundance of cherubic would-be rebels can fill—least of all Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (played as an adult by Amanda Seyfried), who here has the presence of a spectral waif. Again, some of these problems are easily attributable to flaws in the structure of the source material, particularly its struggle to briskly introduce a wealth of new characters after more than 90 minutes in the company of a manageable group, but even regarded as merely an inferior production of a musical better suited to the stage than to the screen, Les Misérables can’t help but bring these problems into relief, highlighting flaws some may not have noticed.
Hooper, of course, also places a great deal of emphasis on his own flaws as a filmmaker, though perhaps not in the manner one might expect: Les Misérables seems, in his newly Oscar-carrying hands, an elaborate demo reel for his tics as self-styled auteur. Those who’d considered the milquetoast King’s Speech an inoffensive but largely anonymous-looking production are here presented with a most persuasive retort—in the form of pronounced garishness. Fisheye lenses and poorly framed close-ups abound in Les Misérables, nearly every frame a revelation of one man’s bad taste; the best that can be said of the style is that it’s deliberate, which at least distinguishes it from Hooper’s work to date.
What’s frustrating is that the world of the film is, outside of how it’s actually shot, magnificently realized, the filth-lined streets of early 19th-century France brought to life by the capable production design of Mike Leigh regular Eve Stewart (whose work on Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy seems the best precedent). But Hooper, presented with an artisanal creation no doubt labored-over by legions of craftsmen, rarely relishes it, choosing instead to shoot, say, an extreme close-up of Jackman’s moribund face with his chin and forehead lopped off, this impeccably detailed world relegated to the periphery of the frame. One would be hard-pressed to describe this, despite the wealth of beauty on display, as anything but an ugly film, shot and cut ineptly. Everything in the film, songs included, is cranked to 11, the melodrama of it all soaring. So it’s odd that this kind of showboating maximalism should be ultimately reduced to a few fisheye’d faces, mugging for their close-up, as the people sing off-key and broken.