I had the good fortune of experiencing the musical version of “Les Misérables” when it opened on Broadway in 1987. It was a fascinating production in which the weaker aspects of the source material – a significantly dumbed-down Cliff Notes-worthy version of the Victor Hugo novel and a high-fructose pop music score – were deftly camouflaged by Trevor Nunn’s innovative theatrical direction and by the extraordinary energy of the ensemble cast.
I also had the misfortune of experiencing the new film version of “Les Misérables”, which fails to hide the weaker aspects of the source material and, with the exception of a single sequence, never brings any imagination to the screen adaptation. But even if I never saw “Les Misérables” on stage, I would still have difficulties with this dreary, enervated endeavor.
For starters, the film is often at odds with its musical theater roots. Director Tom
Cooper Hooper decided to have the cast sing their lines live, rather than lip-sync; orchestrations were added later in post-production. However, this results in having the bombastic score toned down dramatically, with many of the numbers presented in a benign talk-sing conversational manner similar to how Rex Harrison performed his numbers in “My Fair Lady.” This could have worked with the right cast, but “Les Misérables” is not stacked with a strong line-up of actors.
As the fugitive parolee Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman stomps through the film with a pensive look while spitting out his songs with no degree of enthusiasm. The charisma and star power that Jackman usually brings to his film work is strangely absent here – his Jean Valjean is so bland that it is hard to stay sympathetic to his cause. The most embarrassing moment in the film comes when Jackman performs “Bring Him Home,” arguably the show’s most poignant song. As originally presented on stage, “Bring Him Home” is Valjean’s painful and borderline-pathetic plea to God to spare the life of the young revolutionary Marius. In the film, Jackman impatiently shouts out the lyrics with the finesse of a gym teacher putting his class through a calisthenics exercise – his presentation totally steamrolls over the heartbreaking angst laced within the lyrics.
Jackman is challenged in the miscasting by Russell Crowe as the ruthless military officer Javert, who pursues Valjean over the years. Crowe’s flat vocalizing fails to tap into the seething malevolence and self-righteous arrogance that frames Javert’s brutal mission. Even worse, the star doesn’t even bother to phone in a performance – for most of the film, he walks with a slightly dyspeptic expression. As a result, the film’s core drama evaporates because there’s nothing to fear from this boring Javert in his lethargic pursuit of the equally dull Valjean.
However, there is plenty to fear from Anne Hathaway’s doomed factory worker Fantine. Her well-publicized weight loss gives her a ghastly appearance that matches her character’s descent into deprivation. But while Hathaway avoided food in preparing for this film, she compensated for her dietary restriction by chewing the scenery with uncontrolled gusto. Her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is performed with such a broad physicality – complete with eye-rolling, grimacing and convulsive gestures – that it is easy to assume her big number is a prelude for a surprise transformation into Mr. Hyde. And any hope for “Les Misérables” to lay claim to subtlety goes out the window with that number, though some Oscar voters may be sympathetic to Hathaway’s hamming.
Elsewhere in the commotion is Sacha Baron Cohen trying to be funny (and failing, as usual) as the miscreant innkeeper Thenandier, Helena Bonham Carter trying in vain to squeeze something out of the nothing role as Cohen’s scheming wife, and Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Radmayne as the one-dimensional saccharine lovers Cosette and Marius.
Adding to the confusion are a few scattered CGI effects that can be detected with very little difficulty and some fairly erratic cinematography that includes headache-inducing handheld shots and scenes that are so poorly lit that it looks as if the sets were illuminated with a 40-watt light bulb. But at least these flubs help to distract from the fumbling of the misguided cast.
In fairness, the film is not a total flop. Fortunately, there are two redeeming performers via a pair of theater veterans: West End actress Samantha Barks as Eponine, whose unrequited love for Marius seals her doom, and Colm Wilkinson (who played Valjean in the original Broadway production) as a monsignor. They add a degree of intelligence to the proceedings, and at least they know how to sell a song.
Cooper Hooper peppers the latter stretch with a violent (and nonmusical) extended sequence detailing how the French military effectively destroys the barricades that were erected during a failed Parisian revolt and then systematically murders the student rebels. This section is the only time that the film actually comes alive with some degree of motion and power, and Cooper Hooper fills the screen with gut-wrenching moments of bravery and cruelty that effectively channels the soul and spirit of the Hugo text. But when that is done, everyone starts singing again.
All told, I dreamed a dream of a much better movie than this. “Les Misérables” is, on the whole, fairly miserable.