Film Review | Les Misérables

Tom Hopper’s loud-and-proud follow-up to The King’s Speech is a graceless, lumbering beast that should be labelled ‘For Fans Only’.

Already Golden Globe winners, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are tipped for Oscar glory thanks to their turn in Tom Hopper’s ambitious adaptation of the hugely popular musical.
Already Golden Globe winners, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman are tipped for Oscar glory thanks to their turn in Tom Hopper’s ambitious adaptation of the hugely popular musical.

Caution: this is not a film, a 'movie' - it's not a cinematic experience of any kind. Director Tom Hopper's 'sung-through' screen-musical adaptation of the stratospherically popular stage phenomenon Les Misérables is a hybrid so brazen in its disregard of the medium it's travelling to that it should be legally bound to carry a 'For Fans Only' tag.

The story to this melodramatic pean to love, death and revolution is familiar to most but I will summarise it here for those who will be entering into this assault of sound, tears and fury innocent of the cross-generational tale, which spans 17 years and runs the social gamut of 19th century France.

Though its running time just about exceeds a leisurely three hours, Tom Hopper (The King's Speech) swoops his camera down on his central character - Hugh Jackman's hard-done-by Jean Valjean - with focused gusto, depicting him on the last day of his 19-year imprisonment as he's made to haul a beached ship back to land with the help of his fellow inmates, and to the backdrop of crashing waves and relentless rainfall.

But Hopper's sweeping-and-plunging directorial eye is aided by a central presence: Russell Crowe's bellowing prison guard Javert who, seeming to stand at the very centre of the storm, descends to officially send Valjean - imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to save his "sister's son" - to his freedom; warning him, however, that he's on very strict parole.

From then on begins a wrenching journey through France's underbelly, as Valjean's fate - taking a turn for the better - is intertwined with that of doomed prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whose child Cosette (Isabelle Allen; later Amanda Seyfried) he ends up raising... while the teenage Cosette's romantic entanglement with a young revolutionary, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) places him firmly under Javert's crosshairs once again.

It already scored Golden Globe awards for Best Musical, with a corresponding gong for Jackman in the deflatingly specific 'Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy' category. But it was Hathaway's win as Best Supporting Actress - along with Jackman, she's in the running for the same at this year's Oscars - that was the most predictable shoo-in (a BBC commentator said that snubbing Hathaway would surely result in some kind of public inquiry). And yes, her rendition of tear-jerking ballad 'I Dreamed a Dream' - shot in an uninterrupted close-up shot - is a make-or-break turn for any actor. It's a challenge that Hathaway guts and quarters with riveting aplomb, and Hopper's decision to record the singing live leaves room for 'flaws' whose humanity is never more touching than in moments when Hathaway bubbles and gurgles through her lines.

But the unyielding zoom on Hathaway's supposedly bedraggled face - she's just shaved her hair off, and plucked out a couple of back teeth, for money - only drives home the fact that Hopper isn't really a film director here.

He's more of a conductor, if anything, forcefully marshalling the already-successful property onto celluloid with little care as to how the twain will meet in the journey from stage to film (to wit: flying your camera over cobblestoned period sets, then shoving it practically up your actors' noses does not a movie make).

That's not to say that the project lacks love and energy - if anything, its boundless enthusiasm could be its ultimate downfall - at least when it comes to bridging the gap between the already-won-over 'Les Mis' enthusiasts and a general audience.

It's a bit like Passion of the Christ in many ways: its emotional impact is taken for granted even  before the opening reels unspool onto the cinema screen, so that Hopper takes no time to lay the groundwork and create a world we can gradually step into.

Instead, he bludgeons us with bombast without respite... for three whole hours, and with barely two minutes of spoken dialogue.

Jackman - a justifiably beloved screen hunk with a fair share of experience in stage musicals too - does eke out a convincing portrait of a man determined to reclaim his dignity. Fresh from being graced by an act of unexpected mercy, he belts out the emotionally complex Valjean's Soliloquy, and you'd be hard-pressed to suppress a desire to hug the guy after he's done.

But what about his arch-enemy? Seemingly one-dimensional as the rest, the unwavering lawman Javert unveils layers of complexity as the plot unfolds. It's a pity that the otherwise imposing Russell Crowe doesn't have the vocal chops to properly wrestle with the rest of his cast mates.

If anything lasting is to emerge from this maddening collage, it's that freckled Brit newcomer Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) is a star in the making - unlike most of his colleagues, his journey through this all-singing epic feels effortless.

It's just a shame that anything good gets swallowed up in the relentless chorus of frothing 'emotion'.

Imagine the tallest, richest and gaudiest wedding cake you've ever seen. Now imagine being force fed that same piece of baroque confectionery.

Slice. By. Excruciating. Slice.

There was a time when actors shined, When their voices were aloft, And their singing, inviting. There was a time when the audience wasn’t deaf (or blind), And the screen had songs And the way the songs sung, exciting. There was a time, Then it all went wrong. I’ve seen the scene that Anne won by, Where she tried But life was missing. I screamed that Crowe would just die; I dreamed that Hugh could be forgiven. Then I was bummed, for twenty I paid; My dough and time they stole and I wasted. There’s no refund I’m afraid, For songs ill-sung by names profitably pasted. “But the actors sing it live!” The media voices yelled with thunder, As publicists play their part, As they turn their screams to shame. DVD’s coming this summer for fans to buy, To fill their days with anxious wonder: “Is this really better than live?” But his cash was gone when autumn came. And still I dream plays on screen are good to see, That stage and film can mesh together. But there are dreams that cannot be, Good actors don’t mean the singing’s better. And singing is a musical’s reason to be, So different from that hell that I was watching. No different now from what it seemed, This flick has killed me with the scenes I’d seen.