Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a two hour-forty minute film based on a three hour musical from 1985, itself based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of over 500,000 words, and I’m afraid that all this trimming is making the story lose its focus. This is an epic, sprawling narrative, but Hooper struggles to tell it the way it demands to be told. Generally, one can understand the narrative; Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) breaks his parole by stealing a bag of silver but is intent on using his wealth to help the poor. Over the course of two decades he finds himself a law-abiding mayor and an orphan’s father, but Javert (Russell Crowe) is always looking for the parole-violator. Those two decades overlap with the student uprising in Paris, which introduces Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the grown-up Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) as his lover, and the lonely Eponine (Samantha Barks), and there are detours along the way to introduce Fantine (Anne Hathaway) and a pair of innkeepers (Sacha Baren Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) among others. But specifically, it’s hard to pinpoint the significance of each scene, and characters float in and out of the plot without much motivation.
This is partly the fault of writer William Nicholson (Gladiator), whose script is not polished enough to balance these characters, but Hooper is in a rush to tell their story, so we find ourselves isolating them or grouping them in pairs, rarely understanding where they fit into the story’s over-arching narrative and settling to understand a few key relationships. Characters are almost never given introductions and it is just as rare for the film to follow any of them long enough for us to sympathize with them. The attempt to capture all the characters generally results in capturing none of them in particular, so Les Misérables turns into an impressive array of songs with a narrative crammed in instead of a strong narrative told through music. And “crammed” is the optimum word; sequences of Les Misérables are edited as if Hooper wanted the film to be four hours but couldn’t convince the studio, so he cut every shot without music to as short a length as he could, often times giving the film a disorienting sense of space.
Indeed, Hooper does not do a very good job with what he is given, opting to turn the innkeepers into overly long, predictable comic-relief that fail to produce a laugh, every bit as miserable as the characters we are watching. Equally distracting, there is just enough un-sung dialogue to catch you off guard. A little less, and it would feel like a true through-sung musical; a little more, and it would pace an audience that begins to feel victimized by melodrama and excess (there are 51 songs in the film, compared to 50 in the musical play). Still, it’s the emphasis on live-singing that most wears down the audience. Far too many songs are done in shallow-focus close-ups, emphasizing the difficulty of live-singing but also exposing performance flaws and bringing the narrative to a dead-halt. Many of these close-ups are poorly framed to boot, with the actor falling in and out of the frame and almost always being placed at the same awkward three-quarters mark along the screen’s horizontal axis.
The live singing causes more problems than just some ill-advised shots, though. For most of the cast, Russell Crowe in particular, singing and acting at the same time is far too difficult, Seyfried’s singing is strong but her acting sub-par, and the numerous confrontations between Jackman and Crowe seem caught between either letting the tension play out or trying to keep the music going. The exception is Anne Hathaway, but her screen time is too limited to leave a lasting impression. But for a film that makes its theme of redemption vs. law clear from the beginning, and because condensing the enormous novel into a 160 minute film involves leaving out a lot of character development, far more than singing is needed to make Les Misérables hit home. There’s a good collection of actors here, but live singing prevents them from being as good as they are. There are a few sequences where everything seems to click: The actors are able to both sing and act, the scene is important enough to prevent overwrought close-ups, and the shots are long enough both to prevent the disorienting seen too often and show off the beauty. During these few scenes, Les Misérables absolutely soars. But they are also so rare that whatever comes next always feels like filler.
The film’s saving grace comes from the money that went into the film. The cast owes a big thank you to the group of sound-mixers and sound-editors who do an admirable job covering up the shortcomings in singing and who mix the background music at a perfect volume, one that keeps us in the diegesis during integral scenes but lets the music wash over us in the close-ups and intended showstoppers. The costumes are elaborate and varied, the sets beautifully ordained, and the visual effects make every wide-shot and every overhead shot feel warranted even when they also feel a bit uninspired. What is on the screen always looks like a million bucks (largely because it probably was). For a film littered with excess, it’s the production design that prevents the film from completely collapsing under its own weight. But as good as the singing usually is and as beautiful as the film looks when given a chance, Hooper’s direction is far too misguided to let this film be what it needs to be.