Epic ‘Les Miserables’ lacks stylish cohesion in its big screen translation
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticemail@example.com December 26, 2012 11:50AM
Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Cosette (Isabelle Allen) plot their escape from Valjean's nemesis, Inspector Javert, upon their return to Paris in "Les Miserables." | Universal Pictures
‘LES MISERABLES’ ★★½
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.
Rating: PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Length: 2 hr., 38 min.
Updated: January 29, 2013 6:10AM
It has taken Cameron Mackintosh, that megastar British theater producer, more than a quarter of a century to usher one of his greatest hits, the epic Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg musical, “Les Miserables,” from stage to screen.
The reasons for such an unusually long lag time are no doubt many and varied. To begin with, Mackintosh probably had no interest in undermining his extraordinary success at legit theater box offices around the world where, to date, the musical has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries (and 21 languages).
There also was the whole matter of the general decline in the popularity of movie musicals in recent decades — something that only began to change in a significant way with the release of “Moulin Rouge!” in 2001 and “Chicago” in 2002.
But most crucially there was this question: When it comes right down to it, how do you put this highly theatrical work on the screen? True, its grand scale would seem a natural for “opening up” and realistic locations (though much of “old France” was actually filmed in today’s “old England,” with bits of computer-generated material part of the mix). On the other hand, the characters almost continually burst into song in a mega-theatrical way.
“Les Mis” might have been filmed “on the stage,” the way the Metropolitan Opera now captures many of its productions for limited release in movie theaters. But that would have been beside the point. This is a work with proven mass appeal, and its grand scope — from a chain gang, to a cathedral, to the revolution-torn streets and labyrinthine underground sewers of 19th-century Paris — has cinematic potential written all over it.
The job of translating “Les Miserables” to the screen landed in the lap of director Tom Hooper (winner of the 2010 Academy Award for best director for “The King’s Speech”), and writer William Nicholson, who has penned both stage plays and screenplays. The result is a star-studded hybrid with as many problems as virtues. It uneasily straddles the conventions of two mediums as it spins the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the man released into an unforgiving world after enduring 19 years of brutal punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, and who, after a rough start, sets out to live a noble life despite continual harassment by his nemesis, Javert (Russell Crowe), a police officer with a warped sense of law and order.
In many ways the film’s opening sequence — in which a massive ship is caught in a storm, and slavelike convicts, roped together, are seen in a superhuman effort to haul it into port — encapsulates the film’s problems. Unquestionably, the epic nature of this scene (which marks a faithful return to Victor Hugo’s novel) is movie-ready. Yet the whole thing has the quasi-artificial feel of a Cecil B. DeMille epic. And this uneasy, sometime jarring mix of realistic on-location scenes and massive sound stage constructions persists throughout. The result is that one scene looks hyper-real while the next feels entirely stagey. The emblematic barricades sequence on a narrow Paris street could fit onto a theater stage. The knee-high river of excrement in the sewers is almost real enough to smell. Javert’s precarious walk along a cathedral parapet feels unnecessarily stagey, as does his plunge into the Seine.
This lack of stylistic cohesion carries over into the performances, too. On the one hand, they are ultra-real, with intense close-ups showing the actors’ every tear and freckle. But when those close-ups capture the actors singing, the whole thing takes on a hyper-theatrical aura.
Indeed, Hooper tried to enhance the realism by taping all the singing “live” as the actors were playing their scenes, with lush orchestrations added later. This works exceptionally well in the scenes of degradation to which that tragic single mother, Fantine (played superbly by Anne Hathaway, whose gaunt, expressive face holds the screen, especially as her hair is visibly chopped off) is subjected. But oddly it loses something in the interplay between Jackman and Crowe.
The heat of the student revolution scenes that invariably set the stage on fire gets lost here, too, even if we sense the contrasting personalities of the romantic Marius (Eddie Redmayne), and the fiery Enjolras (the clarion-voiced Aaron Tveit).
The tracking of the passage of time that can be problematic in the stage version of “Les Mis” is not convincingly remedied here, either, with Hooper turning to the same convention of supertitles bearing dates. And it doesn’t help that Jackman’s Valjean can look half-dead at the start of the story, and then grow increasingly youthful, almost “Hollywood manicured” as decades pass. Jackman never fully captures the emotional gravity needed for the role.
Crowe, whose cruel Javert ages more or less appropriately, opts for underplaying things. As for the scenes with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as those money-grubbing low-lifes, the Thenardiers, they feel like outtakes from the film version of “Sweeney Todd.”
Samantha Barks (making her film debut in a role she’d played on the stage), brings an impressive naturalness to the streetwise Eponine, who happens to be madly in (unrequited) love with Marius. Also popping off the screen is Daniel Huttlestone, who gives us the fearless, high-spirited street urchin, Gavroche, and whose antics on the streets of Paris are among the film’s most vividly filmed moments. As for the movie’s ending, it is as bland as the opening is wildly cinematic.
Mackintosh has often said that of all the shows he has produced, “Les Miserables” remains his favorite, and the one that will be most enduring. This film will certainly make it accessible to a far wider audience. But its most potent life will forever be on the stage.