Both are directed by Tom Hooper. And like “The King's Speech,” “Les Mis” will likely be an awards darling, garnering lots of nominations and buzz, but only some of it justified. Because like “The King's Speech,” “Les Mis” is filled with fantastic performances and some great production design that is stymied by Hooper's borderline inept direction. I wouldn't go so far as to call Hooper incompetent, but the man simply has no idea what to do with his camera.
But I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself.
“Les MisÚrables” is the first film version of the famed stage musical. There have been plenty of straight dramatic adaptations, but we've never before been able to see Fantine sing “I Dreamed A Dream” on the silver screen. That in and of itself is an exciting prospect, I just wish someone other than Hooper had been given the chance to make it happen.
Also, I suppose it should be noted this was my first time to see any version of “Les Mis.”
For the uninitiated, “Les Mis” (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) tells a sprawling story set on the backdrop of the brewing French Revolution. It follows multiple characters as they navigate their difficult lives in this time of upheaval and poverty.
We open with Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) at last being released from 19 years of imprisonment for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and nephew. It's a stunning scene. Valjean and his fellow prisoners bellow out the opening number “Work Song” as they heave a massive warship into its dry dock. Jackman's dedication to the role is already apparent and the scene overall has a wonderful heft to it. It feels dynamic.
Sadly, that feeling was not to last. But let's talk about what works, first.
Hooper had the brilliant idea to use live recordings of the actors as they sing. Usually, in a movie musical, the actors go back and re-record their singing in the studio so it can then be dubbed over. The benefit of live recording, however, means that the actors can focus wholly on their delivery and performance (and the microphones get digitally scrubbed out later).
This means that we get some fantastic work out of pretty much everyone, especially Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne,.
There's also some wonderful production design with very detailed physical sets (at least Hooper had the sense to not CGI up everything, although the CGI he does use is garish and awful) and costumes.
So what does Hooper do to muck up so much goodwill built up by these wonderful performances and such? He's utterly clueless on what to do with his camera. At least half (if not more) of the film is shot in close-up angles.
Now, on occasion, this works well. For instance, during “I Dreamed A Dream,” a large portion of it is little more than Hathaway's face as she belts out the song. The number is carried entirely by her performance and we see every ounce of emotion that bursts forth. It works. The problem is that many of the numbers are shot this way, which makes much of the film feel small and contained and borderline claustrophobic.
This is a story that is set on a huge backdrop of revolution. This is a story that should be sweeping and soaring in its execution. Instead we're shoved halfway up Hugh Jackman's nostrils every other scene.
Compounding this is the fact that these close-ups are borderline incompetently shot. I suppose one could claim that cutting off portions of an actor's floating head is an artistic choice, but it ends up looking inept.
I also have problems with the story, though that's more on a script level than anything Hooper did. The themes of grace and forgiveness are especially potent, but hampered by some rather thin characterization.
For instance, Cossette (Amanda Seyfried) is little more than a plot device despite so much of the plot revolving around her. Perhaps the worst offender is the “love story” between she and Marius (Redmayne).
Love at first sight is standard stuff in movies, as are truncated relationships that go from zero to FOREVER LOVE in a matter of weeks or even days. But I draw the line at EVERLASTING LOVE after the two have shared little more than a fleeting look from across the street and a midnight meet separated by an iron gate.
Additionally, Javert's pursuit of Valjean (who assumes a new identity to build a new life and escape parole) is actually rather noble and valiant, as is Valjean's desperate quest for redemption, but those more or less get put on the back burner for large portions of the film as we spend time with revolutionaries who we know almost nothing about.
However, these are issues that bothered me as a cinephile and will likely not bother hardcore fans of the stage version in the slightest (as apparently these plot issues, at least, carry over from all versions).
“Les MisÚrables” isn't a bad movie, per se, but it is a highly flawed one. I look forward to being able to loop clips of Hathaway's performance on YouTube, but little else.