There’s no detail that we don’t see in Tom Hooper’s production of “Les Misérables.” From the docks of Toulon to the back alleys of Paris, Hugh Jackman’s prosthetic teeth to the raindrops on Samantha Barks, the film is gorgeous to look at. But in his zeal to show as much as possible, Hooper misunderstood one big difference between live theater and film.
“Les Misérables” is essentially a large production. The story originated in Victor Hugo’s 1900-page novel; its first Broadway score from 1987 score clocks in at almost three hours; the title literally references a huge peasant population. The music, and the performers who do it right, are at home with big theaters and large audiences.
On a screen, “Les Misérables” needed space to breathe, and here it gets smothered. The camera work relies so heavily on close-up that it produces comical results. Eddie Redmayne as Marius has a beautiful tenor voice, one that competes with his gesticulating chin for attention in the close-range “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” In an early number, Hugh Jackman as Jean Valjean sings squarely into the camera for a good minute. The results are awkward, to say the least. What the film medium does do is allow the musical to inhabit real spaces in a fresh way. Between the sewers of Paris and the mountains of rural France, the setting is an amazing visual whirlwind.
I was also glad to see the writers respect the music. Claude-Michel Schönberg’s and Alain Boubil’s original score remained largely unchanged apart from the deletion of “Dog Eats Dog” and the addition of a new song they composed for the film.
Musical theater buffs will try to compare these performances with the show’s original cast, which is generally a mistake. Vocally, most of this cast can’t come close, but they bring something good to the table.
Jackman, a veteran stage performer, gives a strong performance as Valjean, unfalteringly good without being pious. Samantha Barks as Eponine delivers such a lovely performance that it manages to sidestep Hooper’s awkward directorial choices and comes through as the strongest in the film. Anne Hathaway’s performance as Fantine managed to live up to the hype it has received and was overall impressive.
Russell Crowe as Javert, however, is such a vocal disaster that even his acting skill cannot overcome his inability to sing the role. Redmayne and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras give strong performances and work well as the pair of revolutionaries, which almost made up for Amanda Seyfried’s shaky performance as Cosette.
If you don’t enjoy musical theater, you probably won’t like this movie. It’s definitely worth seeing though, mostly for Jackman and Barks, not to mention the adorable Daniel Huttlestone as child-revolutionary Gavroche. Broadway’s original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, also makes a great cameo as the bishop whose kindness is the catalyst for all of Valjean’s subsequent actions.
In the final montage, Hooper finally pulls back and lets us see the hundreds of ensemble members we’ve been watching, and it’s in this last shot that “Les Misérables” finally feels at home on the screen. By giving it some space, Hooper finally lets the musical be what it is: grand and breathtaking.