Soft Revolution
by Tyson Kubota

Les Misérables
Dir. Tom Hooper, U.S., Universal Pictures

Les Misérables the musical has had a decades-long road to the multiplex. The Wagner-lite score and earnest lyrics of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubil’s stage version of Victor Hugo’s Christian redemption saga certainly make for a challenging screen adaptation. Tom Hooper’s 2012 film seemed to promise an oblique riff on this well-worn material, one that took real risks, such as having the actors sing instead of lip-sync on set, and casting a mix of relative unknowns and huge celebrities.

It’s disappointing, then, that Hooper makes more literal than lateral moves. He retains nearly every song from the original work, and in some sequences (“Lovely Ladies,” “Red and Black”) hardly varies their staging from the musical. His basic aesthetic strategy is to weld maximalist visuals—fussed-over sets and costumes, computer-generated scenery extensions, hundreds of extras—to the expectedly bombastic score, striving for an irresistible spectacle lent immediacy by the “live” singing. He seeks to amplify this attempted verisimilitude via fast cutting and jarring handheld camerawork, often probing a fisheye lens into the actors’ faces so that they appear to be emoting to us, in a manic direct-address mode that only serves to emphasize the lyrics’ cornier tendencies.

The film is frantic from the outset. In its bombastic opening sequence, bearded prisoners haul CGI-rendered ships into a harbor in early 19th-century France. Among them is our hero, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), serving hard time for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family. Released on parole by the guard Javert (Russell Crowe), the emaciated Valjean staggers from town to town, seeking work and shelter. Jackman convincingly portrays Valjean’s feral beginnings with gusto, slurping soup and stealing silver from a kindly bishop. When he shouts, “I feel my shame inside me like a knife,” face contorted, veins popping, his voice’s strained timbre works in context. A moment later, as Jackman concludes his soliloquy with “Jean Valjean is nothing now / Another story must begiiiiiin,” Hooper’s direction fails him; the camera swoops backwards into the sky as he shreds his parole letter, then tilts toward the sun as scraps of paper swirl into the air and then back to earth. Hooper clearly intends these ornate visuals to complement the thundering music, but the effect can be exhaustingly redundant, especially as the film’s uneven vocals underline the clumsiness of its audiovisual furor.

After a spiritual awakening, Valjean resolves to build a new life under an assumed identity, eventually adopting the waif Cosette, daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a factory worker turned prostitute dying of disease. Doggedly pursued by Inspector Javert, Valjean escapes to Paris, where he raises Cosette amidst escalating political strife. Jackman credibly embodies Valjean’s physical transformation into an adoptive father, but his voice can be harsh, lacking the tenderness required in the later scenes. Especially in “Bring Him Home,” Valjean’s prayer for “the son I might have known,” Jackman pushes at the upper limits of his register, and tends to bellow when whispering would suffice. “One Day More,” the ensemble highlight that marks the intermission of the nearly four-hour play, becomes a frenzied montage of student revolutionaries and poxy street denizens, interrupted by smash cuts to a comically shrill Jackman in a carriage shouting the title lyrics.

Some memorable moments do survive the assault of Hooper’s crude, attention-grabbing style. Anne Hathaway gives her all in a single-take “I Dreamed a Dream,” and pulls off a moving scene despite some obnoxious aesthetic intrusions. As she sings, snarls, and sobs, her head, presented in a digitally assisted shallow focus that resembles an Instagram filter, bobs and weaves out of the frame. Intended as a vérité-style triumph, the lengthy shot (and Hathaway’s shaved head) instead recalls Sinead O’Connor’s 1990 “Nothing Compares 2 U” music video.

The score is a broad, highly schematic social tapestry, assigning the narrative’s various demographic elements—prisoners, factory workers, desperate single mothers, prostitutes, orphans and gangs, student revolutionaries, and the bourgeoisie—their own leitmotifs woven into larger song structures. Unfortunately, the actors’ imprecise singing often erodes the music’s structural and melodic symmetry, especially in the arrangements for pairs and trios. The Valjean/Javert confrontation beside Fantine’s deathbed, a thrilling vocal duel in the play, here becomes a boringly literal fight scene with Valjean fending off a rapier-wielding Javert, and Jackman and Crowe sing-shouting at each other as they slash and parry. As young lovers Cosette and Marius, Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne’s voices (both on-key) intertwine more successfully. Samantha Barks sings a stirring “On My Own” as the doomed third wheel Eponine, and in general the middle third of the film works best musically, as Javert and Valjean are sidelined and the revolutionary students take center stage.

This new Les Mis never reconciles the “live” celebrity singing with its outrageous visual conceits, but in the end reaches a hesitant detente. It’s clear that some of Hooper’s directorial embellishments are ploys meant to distract from the weakest vocals—Crowe’s dull, sheepish performance of “Stars,” intended as Javert’s triumphant solo number, receives some of the film’s loudest violin backing as the camera vaults over the Paris skyline, often leaving Crowe himself standing forlornly in a digitally rendered cityscape.

At times, the film feels like a highly self-conscious attempt to plot a new direction for the musical genre—one that repudiates the trappings of live theater in favor of “realistic” visuals and an insistence on “truthful” performances, despite the toll these decisions take on the music itself. It’s hard to blame Hooper for trying; all musicals these days are meta-commentaries on a form that, like the Western, survives only as a spectral genre, its genes long since spliced into other formats and places, like music videos, the lip-synched spectacle of pop concerts, and Bollywood. Despite the film’s specific failings, its narrative arc—from confinement and tragedy to truth, love, and redemption, accompanied by the stirrings of revolutionary change—is still moving in its epic sweep and blunt thematic engagement. Les Misérables presents a simpler world, rich in human feeling and free of irony. Questionably grandiose aesthetics aside, the film seems apt for a cultural moment that collectively yearns for spiritual sustenance even as it tries to deny these impulses, locating a shared cliché of “authenticity” and holding it close to heart.