Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

There is a moment in the first act of Les Misérable that is every bit the slam dunk of performance that awards buzz and marketing have made it out to be: when I watched Anne Hathaway sing “I Dreamed a Dream”, the highlight of the musical entire, shivers paraded up and down my body as she visibly broke down over the course of a single take without sacrificing musicality whatsoever. It’s the payoff to director Tom Hooper’s sing-on-set strategy, and surely one of the all-time great performance moments in a screen musical.

Beyond that, my praise for Les Mis runs very thin. In fact, it’s remarkable that “I Dreamed a Dream” works at all, given that it follows a beastly, caricatured depiction of prostitutes as shrill, cackling sexpots. That’s unbecoming for a work that ostensibly has social compassion and equality as its aim, although the transition from Victor Hugo’s source novel to the stage musical to this film has rendered that original thesis nonexistent.

The spine of the work is intact: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict who has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, and breaks a permanent parole that guarantees a life of poverty. After changing his name and becoming a wealthy mayor, he rescues and raises Cosette (played in adulthood by Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of dying prostitute Fantine (Hathaway), and spends his life fleeing the absolutely lawful police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Eventually, circumstance finds Valjean in the midst of the June Rebellion of 1832.

It’s a long and involved plot, one that requires subplot elaboration, psychological insight, and social observation that the film’s already-generous two-and-a-half-hour length can’t possibly offer (for that, one must look to Raymond Bernard’s 1934 five-hour adaptation of the novel). And so the first major flaw of Les Miserables is that its character arcs are unconvincing, playing more as a series of requisite plot points than as the complex social epic that it ought to be.

This has major repercussions on the characters, especially the romantic duo of Cosette and the student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who are the vapid centers of a hatefully dull love triangle. Neither one is given much of a personality, particularly Cosette, whose characterization goes no further than a pair of big eyes. The triangle’s third wheel, Éponine (Samantha Barks), is barely more interesting, and entirely insignificant to an already-insignificant subplot.

There are major issues with the libretto, as well. Most flagrant is the gnashingly awkward and functional marquee chorus of “Can you hear the people sing / Singing the song of angry men,” but there are many moments of choppy dialogue, clunky exposition, and generally unpoetic lyrics. The score, thankfully, is nearly beyond reproach, but the words rarely seem made to fit.

I’ve yet to mention the film’s greatest sins. Hooper’s direction shows him to be totally out of his depth in a project of this scale and ambition. His coverage is a mess of ill-placed close ups, canted shots, shaky handheld, wide angle lenses, and all-over-the-place blocking that justifies and deepens all criticisms made of his Oscar-winning work on The King’s Speech.

But by far the worst of all is the editing. It is no less than an utter disaster, a barrage of cuts that are deaf to rhythm and blind to spatial coherency. If every other element of Les Misérables were terrific, the cutting alone would be more than enough to cripple it. In the busier musical moments, the rapid cutting has all the musicality and precision of a jackhammer, especially during “Master of the House”, a lengthy, unfunny comedy song introducing the villainous Thénardiers that could have easily been cut with no negative repercussions. And the revolutionaries’ battle at the barricade could scarcely be harder to follow if you randomly rearranged the shot order.

It’s a sign of particular incompetence that the editing fails even the slower, more performance-dependent moments, reacting to characters’ feelings and decisions after the fact instead of allowing the cuts to drive their emotional beats. It’s no coincidence that Hathaway’s number is the best part of the film: there is no cutting to ruin it. But the whole affair is a failure on nearly every level — I have not mentioned the production design, which is scuttled by dodgy CGI work — except for the score, fine performances by Crowe and Jackman, and that one moment of perfection from Hathaway, a performance that breaks out of its contextual ghetto and singlehandedly achieves something of a social comment and emotional arc all its own. It’s enough to make the whole production worthwhile, though the rest of Les Misérables deserves no better than consignment to a footnote in the history of Hugo adaptations.


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