Like Joel Schumacher’s adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which arrived DOA in theatres during the 2004 holiday season, Tom Hooper’s opulent but bloated version of another insipid pop opera proves a lump of coal in moviegoers’ Christmas stockings.
Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is, of course, a classic, and given its emotional power it’s understandable that it’s been filmed so often (nearly twenty times), most memorably in 1935 with Fredric March and the incomparable Charles Laughton—a bit creaky by modern standards (the heavenly choir in some of the music cuts is surely embarrassing) but still moving. But why this musicalization of it has become such an international phenomenon is puzzling. The French libretto by Alain Boubil reduces the tale to its most rudimentary points (the emphasis given to street urchin Gavroche, played here by irritating little Daniel Huddlestone, is perhaps the worst example), the score by Claude-Michel Schoenberg is a numbingly unvaried succession of dirgelike recitative-arias punctuated with spuriously uplifting choral outbursts, and Herbert Kretzmer’s English lyrics are unremittingly obvious and banal. But in an era when spectacle trumps content, the extravaganza that Cameron Mackintosh and his technical wizards fashioned on stage apparently convinced audiences that they were watching something special.
Director Tom Hooper, who had unexpected success with “The King’s Speech,” tries the same recipe in this screen adaptation of the show. This “Miserables” is big, with huge sets, florid costumes, cinematography by Danny Cohen that mixes large crowd scenes with overbearing close-ups and editing (by Melanie Ann Oliver and Chris Dickens) that fluctuates between long takes and rapid-fire, jumbled cutting that often gets too busy for the material’s good. Hooper has also employed one technical innovation that proves to have both strengths and weaknesses. Rather than having the cast lip-synch to prerecorded tapes or dubbing the songs in post-production, he outfitted the performers with microphones as they sang. On the positive side, this adds emotional heft to their renditions, making use of their acting chops as well as their vocal chords. On the other, it reveals every vocal imperfection.
And unfortunately there are plenty of them. Anne Hathaway gets by well enough in her small role as Fantine, the doomed woman forced into prostitution after she loses her factory position; and Amanda Seyfried is surprisingly effective as older Cosette, whom the convict Valjean, living under a false name to elude capture by the obsessive Inspector Javert, rescues and brings up as her daughter. Eddie Redmayne is also fine as Marius, the young revolutionary who becomes Cosette’s romantic interest despite the love of Eponine (Samantha Barks, also okay) to keep them apart.
But in the pivotal roles of Valjean and Javert the production stumbles badly. Jackman emotes frantically, but to be honest, Hooper miscalculates by focusing on him in close-up too often, making you all too aware of all the effort he’s putting into his performance. And though his voice barely gets by on stage, here it’s unsatisfactory—thin, wobbly and unfocused. By contrast Russell Crowe as Javert barely emotes at all—he just walks through the picture looking as though he’s suffering from perpetual stomach upset, and though his vocalism might be perfectly adequate for a garage band, its range is hopelessly inadequate for this ersatz operatic writing. When he—and Jackman as well—attempt to take their voices into the upper register, they emit a strangulated sound that’s positively painful to hear.
The singing of Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers, the nasty couple from whom Javert takes Cosette, isn’t really much better, and their acting is really nothing more than mugging. Still one welcomes their big duet, “Master of the House,” simply because in the dreary sameness that marks most of Schoenberg’s score it comes across like like a real Broadway number—not a good one, necessarily (if fact, it sounds like something Lionel Bart would have rejected for “Oliver!”), but at least different from what surrounds it.
Maybe nothing will stop the legions of fans who have kept “Les Miserables” running on Broadway for years and touring endlessly from going to this film of it—though a similar history of success certainly didn’t help Schumacher’s “Phantom.” But unless you think that Schoenberg’s mediocre score is the height of musical profundity, you’d be well advised to stick with the March-Laughton version, where the leads deliver their lines in a truly musical way without singing. Or better yet, read the book.