Film review: Hooper’s Dizzy Gimmickry Hampers ‘Les Miserables’

LES MIS 1Few recent films have stirred up passions like the long-awaited movie version of the Les Misérables musical has. That’s not surprising given the show’s world-wide following – more than 60 million people in 43 countries have seen it on stage since 1985.

Now Tom Hooper (Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech) has helmed a star-studded cinematic adaptation that sports “live” singing and all the trimmings of a modern big-budget feature. The result is mixed, largely due to the dizzy gimmickry of the director, but more about that later.

LES MIS 2There’s likely enough to please many fans of the stage presentation that Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer liberally crafted from portions of Victor Hugo’s 1862 magnum opus. The songs – and much of the performances that go with them – will likely evoke happy memories of first seeing the show in a theater or listening to one of the best-selling cast albums. (There’s even a new song written for the film, “Suddenly,” that is pretty enough but isn’t really needed.)

Anne Hathaway, for instance, lives up to the advance hype when she delivers a powerful there-will-be-no-dry-eyes-in-the-house rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Oscar nomination ballots are still out, but it’s already a good bet according to industry buzz that she will be not only nominated but win; after seeing her work in this film I think she deserves any honor she gets.

LES MIS 3Hugh Jackman, a 2004 Tony winner for his leading role in The Boy from Oz, certainly knows how to handle musical material. His Jean Valjean is a victim-turned-victor over an oppressive system that kept him locked up for years after stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child; Jackman knows how to parcel out the earnest sensitivity his character demands, though either by design or the aging process his singing voice sounds less powerful than it did on Broadway (or when he played Curly in an acclaimed 1998 Oklahoma! production that the National Theatre staged in London which was filmed and released on DVD).

There have been complaints from professional and amateur reviewers alike about the quality of Russell Crowe’s singing as Javert. Well, Crowe has been a rock band front man and appeared in a Sydney production of The Rocky Horror Show, so he can sing. But his voice is nevertheless a limited one, and there are moments in such songs as “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide” when it really isn’t up to the demands of the music. His greater problem, though, is his choice to essentially play Javert as a machine and not a man. The musical already cuts out much of Hugo’s background information regarding Javert and his reasons for being so obsessed with Valjean – after all, what’s the likelihood of him chasing this one man so relentlessly for 20 years when he’s probably had others break parole? With Crowe’s performance we get even less about his character’s motivation for what he does. It’s as if he’s the 19th Century French version of the Terminator, which makes his final act less understandable and tragic than it should be.

LES MIS 4Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen put the rascally Madame and Monsieur Thénardier through their paces in proficient fashion, though elements of their performances remind me too much of their previous work in the film version of Sweeney Todd and therefore gave me an unfortunate sense of déjà vu watching them.  Samantha Barks has played Éponine on stage in London, so it’s no surprise she does a good job with the role on camera; Daniel Huttlestone’s Gavroche is cute, but not sickeningly so; Isabelle Allen gives us a sweet and sad “Castle on a Cloud” as the young Cosette; and Aaron Tveit’s Enjolras makes a convincing leader of doomed young men.

Amanda Seyfried gets to display the trilling songbird style she showcased in the 2008 film of Mamma Mia!; that’s about all she gets to do as the adult Cosette, but to be fair that’s about all her role offers in the musical anyway. The real surprise in the cast is Eddie Redmayne (My Week with Marilyn) as Marius – he has a terrific singing voice, and gets the chance to show it during such numbers as “A Heart Full of Love” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

LES MIS 5The original musical Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, lends gravitas to the proceedings as the bishop who claims the protagonist’s soul for God. It’s a nice touch and a well-deserved spot on the casting roster for the Irish-born singer/actor.

Now, at long last, back to Hooper. Some reviewers have already panned his prolific use of close-ups; I don’t completely mind because there are certainly moments of music and action in Les Misérables that are intimate. But the seemingly constant bobbing, weaving and lurching shots he insists on are so dizzying I wondered if I had an inner-ear problem as I staggered from my seat after the screening. Hooper’s very hands-on, “Look! I’m directing” approach mars the final result. You can definitely hear the people sing, but you may have trouble seeing them as you ought to given the director’s gimmicky shot selections.

 

Les Misérables (www.lesmiserablesfilm.com) opens today (Dec. 25) in wide release nationally. For locations and show times in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements, 157 min. Directed by Tom Hooper; written by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer, based on the novel by Victor Hugo and the stage musical by Boublil and Schönberg with music by Schönberg and lyrics by Kretzmer. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Colm Wilkinson, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Samantha Barks, Isabelle Allen, Daniel Huttlestone, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen and Aaron Tveit.

LES MIS 6*Photos by Laurie Sparham courtesy Universal Pictures.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).