I don’t pretend to be a Les Miserables aficionado, or to have any real knowledge when it comes to musical theater or quasi opera, which I imagine Les Mis works as on stage. I went into the film version more intrigued than anything else. So for those who are Les Mis geekazoids, I apologize for my lack of expertise. One thing I would think everyone can agree on about the film, though, is that the effort and desire to pull off something groundbreaking is 100% sincere and full throttle. The last thing this film feels is mailed in or half assed. The actors put themselves completely on the line. And director Tom Hooper’s choice of filming the actors singing live in every scene, often in extreme close-up, is a bold and genuine effort to deliver the emotional punch Les Mis is supposed to hold.
The problem is, it just doesn’t connect with the depth of emotion that it really should. It may have just been me, and I can’t put my finger on why it didn’t completely work, but I wasn’t always feeling it. To be sure, there were individual scenes here and there where I was wiping away a tear. No two ways about it, when Anne Hathaway is on screen, you are fully invested, feeling every bit of her pain and singing along in your mind with her Fantine. I felt sorry for the other actors when they had a scene with Hathaway, or following her up. Fantine is a character that only appears briefly, but Hathaway stole the film.
The weakest link in the movie for me was Russell Crowe. Oddly enough, it wasn’t just the fact that he doesn’t have the singing chops to pull off a movie musical that had me not connecting with his performance. It was as much a lack of intensity from Crowe in the role of the strictly by the book, fundamentalist police inspector Javert that left me a little flat. He wasn’t mean enough, there was not enough fire there. As the centerpiece of the movie, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean fares better, singing just well enough and delivering most of the movie’s feeling outside of Hathaway. While not a perfect performance, Jackman does have you feeling the combinations of desperation, nobility and humanity that tear at Jean Valjean throughout the story. The rest of the cast was competent, with special attention for me has to go to Samantha Barks as Eponine, on the outside looking in on the Cosette-Marius romance. Her performance, along with Hathaway’s, and to a lesser extent Jackman’s, provided most of the feeling that there was to be had in the movie.
There are certainly moments to be recommended in Les Miserables. But instead of being a quality whole, it was more a tapestry of scenes, not interconnected enough to work, and of hit or miss quality. It was sort of like the pieces of a mish mashed patchwork quilt before they’re put together. Some of them are pretty to look at, some of them aren’t, and they don’t work as a quilt without the thread. The lack of thread is one of the areas that Les Mis comes up short. There is so much focus on the songs that there is not enough back story and meat to attach yourself to. On the stage, or as an opera, this near complete focus on the songs to tell the story is going to work a lot better than it will on film.
Movies are, at their heart, a story telling medium. And Hooper’s style of filming, at least here, is less about storytelling than it is about simply staging scenes. Plus, his penchant for filming so much of the singing close up, while sometimes effective in delivering on the emotion the characters are feeling, has the unfortunate side effect of completely taking you away from any sense of place or historical placement. It’s not that the story isn’t clear or is hard to understand. It’s that the time and place of it has as much to do with the character’s makeup as the characters themselves. And when that sense of place isn’t developed or presented clearly enough, it leaves a crucial element of the feel of the story out of the equation.
Without deeper story development, we’re left with mostly a filmed stage production of a famous musical. And that leaves us with the singing. Again, you absolutely cannot criticize the effort. The actors, most of whom are not professional singers, are out there without a net performing their scenes live. Some, like Hathaway and Barks, knock it out of the park. But most of the rest of the cast is what they are. Non-professional singers trying to deliver professional quality vocal performances, many of which go on for looong periods of time. You end up with what you might get at a Broadway show when the A-list stars are sick and replaced by the understudies. Some might be capable of delivering, some not so much. It may not be completely fair to expect more from actors who aren’t singers, but in the end we as the audience are paying to watch a filmed musical with people that can’t really sing at the highest level. Some singers can act and some can’t. Some actors can sing, and some can’t. Despite the efforts, it’s hard to give completely high marks to a movie with so much singing where so much of the singing varies in quality.
In the end, I put Les Miserables in the noble effort, not quite connecting, category. There have been some years recently where the quality of movies being made would have left Les Mis pretty near the top. In a year with so many good movies as we had in 2012, though, the effort without the delivery simply isn’t good enough. I can see Hathaway getting award nominations for her performance, and I think it’s a film worth seeing (particularly for those who are Les Mis fans in general). But there are plenty of other movies from 2012 that would be more worth your time.