There is a war waged in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables that goes beyond the rebellion in the streets of Paris. Hooper’s adaptation of one of the most popular stage musicals of all time is a clear battle between bold theatricality and the hyper-realism. He wants to embrace realism and have every lyric spit out in rage and despair but he wants the big numbers where voices soar in harmony and the audience is transformed.

It makes for a messy film with scant moments of utter brilliance in amongst the wreckage Hooper’s war has wrought. Most of his actors are making an adaptation of a musical. Sure they sometimes turn into Rex Harrison, muttering the songs rather than singing them, but for the most part they’re there to be a part of one of the most enduring musicals of the modern age. So when they do start in with the sing speaking it seems almost…odd. Like when you’d sit around in high school theater and over act ever line of a song with your friends, taking every single lyric as literally as possible.

Hooper and his camera become characters just as significant as Valjean or Javert or Fantine. In his effort to make things “real” he gets in the face of the actors, putting the lens scant inches away from carefully mottled stained teeth and excellent fake beards. After a while watching these actors’ tongues and throats undulate from a vantage point as close as their dentist’s it gets distracting. As noticeable as a bizarre dutch angle Hooper uses late in the film or that aforementioned sing speaking.

Hooper, perhaps unwisely, trusts his actors implicitly. He seems to do nothing more than cut them loose so he can pull out his camera and run around them catching every wince, sigh and tear. And most respond admirably. Hugh Jackman gives Valjean a waif-like quality. His voice is high and clear but nearly screechy in moments of true duress. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen play the Thenadiers perfectly, bouncing off each other and worming their way through scenes laughing at everyone and everything. And then there’s Russell Crowe.

He doesn’t have the powerful voice of Javert. His range is extremely limited, yet early on…early on he does some extraordinary work. Hooper wanted his actors to get down and dirty with these songs and Crowe dives fearlessly in head first. His scenes with Jackman’s Valjean are Hooper’s goal brilliantly met.

But then he gets to Javert’s solo numbers. A solo number in a musical is nothing more than a soliloquy: Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” set to song. And there are one or two in this film that really seem to get that. Crowe’s two big numbers don’t. It’s as though he’s so busy trying to sing that he forgets to act out his words. It’s not his voice that’s the problem–he establishes early that he doesn’t need a powerful voice to make his Javert compelling–it’s that in these big numbers he just sort of…stands there.

Unlike Anne Hathaway. She gets just one big number, “Dreamed A Dream.” Over time this song’s epic orchestration has given it a reputation as an uplifting number singers close out a concert with. The song itself is anything but. It’s depression splayed out before us and made pretty because of a good voice and some nice music. It’s a woman at the darkest moment of her life finally finding a little grace. And somehow Hathaway finds that grace. She embraces Hooper’s bid for realism fully but at the same time she pairs it with the innate theatricality of the Les Mis‘ libretto. It’s stunning work and the highlight of the entire film.

A shame because it occurs maybe thirty minutes into a two and a half hour movie? It’s almost as though Hooper gets tired after that. The pacing slacks and instead of effortless movement from scene to scene and place to place it becomes a dreary march from one big popular song to the next. Everything suffers because of it.

Eponine, dear Eponine, the best character in the novel and the musical–the girl who is a sad reflection of every woman and the tragic heroine that even Victor Hugo didn’t quite realize was heroic–is shortchanged. Samantha Barks shows up, sings gorgeously and then disappears after being made sure to look like a selfish twat. She’s not a character as much as a guest singer at Hooper’s impromptu concert.

Others fare better. Gavorche’s songs are cut down from the musical but little Daniel Huttlestone somehow feels like the star of the whole dang musical with his five minutes of screen time. Hooper gets creative shooting him–racing through the barricades and past gaggles of children, while Samantha Bark gets plopped down in an empty street in the rain.

He’s like, ‘Okay Barks just stand there and make your boobies look tops.’ And she’s like ‘I can do that, because this outfit shows off my assets nicely, but I could also play the character that won me lots of accolades on the West End?’ And Hooper is like ‘NO.’

Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras fare better too. They’re not poor after thoughts but critical to Hooper’s vision. In retrospect it’s alarming how little Hooper seems to care for Eponine. She was one of the last characters cast in the musical and only after Hooper’s original choice, Taylor Swift was booed out of town by fans. But looking back on that choice it makes sense–because Hooper really doesn’t seem to care for or even understand Eponine. It’s like he puts her in the film because he knows its legions of fans will revolt without her.

I mean, guys, he spends more time building flippin’ Cosette as a character. Cosette. That’s like doing a movie about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and spending all your energy fleshing out Riley.

NO ONE WANTS THAT.

It’s almost as though this movie works in spite of its director. On the one hand you have his experiments and on the other you have a really good musical. If you close your eyes you get the latter–when you open them you just get Hooper’s hot mess.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5315324 Kristen Gudsnuk

    “putting the lens scant inches away from carefully mottled stained teeth and excellent fake bears”

    Wait a second– the bears were fake?!

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5315324 Kristen Gudsnuk

      And it’s “fare better”, not fair better. Fare is a verb.

      • http://www.fempop.com/ Rebecca Jane Stokes

        UGH.

      • http://fempop.com/ Alex Cranz

        Sassy.

  • Lentilite

    I saw it yesterday after reading the book & seeing the musical 20 years ago (so no recent memory to compare it to) and I wouldn’t have noticed the lack of Eponine without reading this review. She sure is missing though. :( I liked the rest, but it would have been better with more Eponine and less Cosette.

  • Isaac

    Just watched it and bumped into this. I wouldn’t have noticed the “stained teeth” and “fake beards” if you didn’t mentioned it. But I did realize the excessive amount of saliva. I’ve never read the book or musical before (other than the 25th anniversary one). So I don’t really love Eponine that much but I do hate Cosette (adult). I just wish her part would just skip. In the end, to me at least, I think the whole film works as a movie-musical mix if you let go of a few details here and there and not compare every single little thing with previous works.