Les Misérables, 2012.
Directed by Tom Hooper.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter and Samantha Barks.
After breaking parole, ex-prisoner Jean Valjean is ruthlessly hunted for decades by the ruthless policeman Javert. When Valjean agrees to care for factory worker Fantine’s young daughter, Cosette, their lives change forever.
This is a film review. It is a review of a film released in cinemas, meant to be watched in cinemas. It is reviewing the medium of film. And as a film, Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is categorically abysmal.
I can openly admit that my review is not based on previous knowledge of the subject matter. I have not seen the musical nor have I read the book, but this is a review of the film; you should not need to know one single solitary thing about a non-sequel film before watching it to understand or enjoy what you’re watching. Nor was my viewing hampered by a dislike of musicals; I could watch Singin’ in the Rain, High Society, or West Side Story every day without thinking them anything less than perfect cinema and perfect examples of the genre.
The film is atrocious because it is not cinematic and it never comes close to looking or feeling cinematic throughout its 160-minute devastatingly dull running time. This is down to two reasons.
Firstly, the film, as it is, should never ever have been made because its foundations are not cinematic. What may work on the musical stage (and evidently does works due to the worldwide popularity) simply does not translate to the cinema screen and should never have been attempted. Anyone with an iota of foresight would have worked out that a script where every single line of narrative is sung and an entire film built around 100% narrative exposition with not a single scene devoted to visual story telling will be a travesty of the medium. Time and time again, we see films where we’re spoon-fed the information and plot and given no chance to work out anything for ourselves. These films are rightly criticised for weak storytelling, but Les Misérables is far more guilty of this than any film I’ve ever seen.
The second reason is the directorial choices made by Tom Hooper. Despite the script not allowing any pause for a film audience to engage with the story or think for themselves, they can appreciate the songs and vocals, but what they cannot do is pair that enjoyment with visuals of equal merit. Hooper shoots very nearly every scene in extreme close up, where the screen is filled by the actor’s head from forehead to chin - over and over and over again during the dramatic songs to the point where each song blends into another and we can no longer tell the difference between scenes or how the story has progressed in between. Imagine all the wonder and spectacle that a Hollywood musical can produce when a song is sung and Hooper delivers the exact opposite. The songs here may not be enthralling or upbeat, but Hooper doesn’t even try to show any attempt at making a cinematic event from the material.
The ‘comedic relief’ songs performed by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are slightly better staged but soon outstay their welcome as we wonder why they sound like they’re out of Oliver! and completely different to the rest of the cast. Hooper’s direction and angle and lens choices go against every logical decision a director could make. When he’s not filling the screen with just a face, he’s using handheld cameras and quick edits which are just as jarring. It looks like the technique of a man who had lost control of the film long before it was completed and looks so bad up on the screen it’s arguably the most boringly directed film I have ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of films.
As a closing comment, the inability to create any emotion from the story reminds me of the increasing number of live operas and stage dramas being screened in cinemas these days. These live performances are surely a distant second from watching the performance live, but at least they are live. Les Misérables cost $60 million to produce and several months to film and the actors got many takes to perfect their live singing, but it never comes close to being anything other than an expensive version of these live screenings.
The fact that Les Misérables has been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars is the greatest single travesty in the award ceremony’s history. It deserves no recognition as a film at all.
Flickering Myth Rating - Film: ★ / Movie: ★
Rohan Morbey - follow me on Twitter.