I wanted Les Misérables to be great, but it just wasn’t. A film that comes out on Christmas Day has got to be a pretty solid stuff, you’d think, but why wasn’t I blown away? Everyone else in the theater seemed to have a different outcome than I did; when the credits rolled, there was a momentary roar of applause. As if the people on the screen just moments before could hear us.
Tom Hooper’s film is not terrible per se; it’s just careless to some degree – for one specific reason – Russell Crowe. Whoever allowed him to be cast in this should be seriously re-examined for experience in their craft. Crowe is dismal in his technique throughout the entire film. It’s literally like he didn’t want to be on set. You can almost see him just wishing the song was over already. Like he was in physical pain every time Hooper called action and he knew he had to sing live to the unapologetic cameras. With every scene that Crowe inhabits he not only sings completely flat, but he literally acts completely flat. I’m not even sure if I caught him raising an eyebrow, much less a full facial expression. The most movement he makes is pacing on ledges, horseback riding, a bit of sword play, and a much welcomed, back-snapping swan dive onto a brick wall. I really just can’t express enough how much Crowe ruined this whole experience for me.
Now, let’s pretend that Crowe was impeccable in his performance (hell, I’d settle for even just OK in his performance); the film would then be good. Not examining Crowe’s performance would allow us to examine the performances of the other actors more closely. Anne Hathaway is terrific. There’s really nothing more to be said about her darkly poignant downward spiral of a performance. Hugh Jackman is good, notable for his live theatre abilities, but in Hooper’s film he lets the scenes get the best of him sometimes. Early on, (around the first act), he comes across much like DeNiro in Cuarón’s Great Expectations remake. I think that’s when I liked Jackman best – the beginning. By the end of the film he’s a little too obvious in his character’s affectations and voice, and it almost gets boring to some degree.
Hooper’s imbued a wonderful dark sensibility to the film to the film as well, which should not be overlooked. He could have chosen to make this lighter fare, but instead kept it classic, cold and literary. He basically could be said to have directed Les Misérables for the stage here, only with setups for cameras and grips. The majority of the shots are handheld, with a wide lens, but smack-up-close-and-personal-walking-with-a-character-as-they-sing-to-the-lens (or just beyond it). Hooper is doing his best to make this an intimate and personal stage experience for cinema-goers. Granted, it’s not the first time this filming style has been done to this effect, but it’s the first time in recent movie history that it’s worked to such great ability. And it very much indeed has worked here. The audience becomes so enthralled; they’re obviously even willing to overlook Crowe (it probably also helps that sadly, most American audiences have no prior education or knowledge of the story of Les Misérables, so it’s like a brand new movie for them).
Take, for example, Chicago, a critically acclaimed movie and a hit with audiences, adapted from the stage, but filmed like a traditional Hollywood picture – just with singing. Many of the great auteurs have tried to bring alive the feeling, the rush, the one-dimensionality and the purity of the theater to the screen (Bergman, Leigh), but until now there wasn’t really a formula that seemed to work. Hooper’s found it. Maybe there’s method in the madness of shooting the actors singing their lines live for each take; maybe that even dictated the reasoning for shooting Les Misérables in the fluid and realistic, on-stage-style that he did, but whatever the reason, you will no doubt see this production formula used again.
Les Misérables is a film your family will probably love, and it’s most certainly a film with heart and beauty, there were a lot of sniffles in the screening which I was at, and I can understand why. To those who know nothing about the craft of filmmaking, this is cinema they can truly let wash over them and enjoy effortlessly, but to those who watch movies in a different way, there’s a lot left to be desired.