Like one giant, high production value screen test. With singing.
If you want a preview of what Tom Hooper’s big screen adaptation of Les Miserables is like, here’s a fun exercise. Buy wall-sized posters of each of the lead actors, hang them up, smear dirt on them (especially their teeth), and put on brown-tinted sunglasses. Then play the soundtrack, stare at whoever is supposed to be singing for the entirety of the song or stanza, tilt your head when things get too boring, and hope for the occasional mini-earthquake. There. Illusion achieved.
Yes, your enjoyment of this film version of Les Miserables will be directly proportional to your desire to see extended, unbroken, shaky-cam close-ups of famous people singing the songs from Les Miserables in hyper-real dirty makeup.
Because that’s what it is. That’s all it is. For well over two hours.This is barely a movie. It’s like a high production-value screen test.
The gimmick here is that all of the vocal performances are captured live on set. They aren’t pre-recorded in a studio and then lip-synched on camera. This explains why the director tended toward unbroken shots, because he didn’t want to have to mix up inconsistent performances. And as far as gimmicks go, it’s an admirable one that occasionally results in some phenomenally moving sequences, like when it allows the actors to incorporate the music into their performances.
I haven’t cried in a movie theater since the fucking Little Mermaid, and Anne Hathaway’s powerful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” all in one shot, did me in. She deserves every statuette that comes her way this season for that scene alone.
But the gimmick is also what destroys any other potentially effective moments. Not every song is “I Dreamed a Dream.” Sometimes it’s Hugh Jackman pacing in a corridor thinking out loud, talking to himself about how he doesn’t know what to do. (Apparently, neither did the director.) And more often than ought to be the case, it’s Russell Crowe singing with a weird chest voice out of the side of his mouth in a clearly uncomfortable octave. Poor guy, having to share most of his screen time with Broadway pro, Jackman. The guy can act, and maybe he can sing, but he can’t do both at once.
In understanding what went wrong, it helps to know that Hooper’s last film was The King’s Speech. It’s shot pretty much the same way—the person talking/singing is the person we see on the screen. That works fine for a period drama about someone learning to speak, but this is a musical, dammit! Look alive! Do something! Because we’re really not all that interested in what the top of Helena Bonham Carter’s head looks like when she’s singing.
There’s really nothing fun about giving a review that focuses on technical aspects. It feels more than a bit like Monday morning quarterbacking, like you’re betraying the art of filmmaking by focusing on little details that you would have done differently. But why is this the Les Mis movie? Why was a hugely dramatic spectacle with fantastic sets and over-the-top drama reduced to this? Why is a movie trying to be gritty and realistic in some areas when they’re singing all the damn time?
PG-13 | WIDE RELEASE |12.25.12