Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is not a good movie. But it’s an interesting movie to watch, if only as a cautionary tale of how a reasonably talented director can lead an excellent cast into a quagmire of poorly-executed ideas, both good and bad, through a singular absence of artistic vision.
I’d go so far as to say there are even some good scenes in the film, though not many. I don’t think Les Mis is coherent enough as a film to be pinned down and vivisected in an essay. What follows are, instead, a non-exhaustive series of thoughts on a film I was excited to see when it came out in cinemas, and which has only disappointed me more and more upon subsequent viewings.
1. As a brief prologue, I’ll air my baggage. Les Misérables is my favourite musical of all time. I’ve seen it once on the West End, but the top half of the stage was cut off by the upper deck of seats from where I was seated, so I couldn’t see anything happening on top of the barricade. The Dream Cast in Concert on VHS was a staple of my childhood, and my parents regularly played the Original London Cast recording in the car. I think Phillip Quast’s Javert is one of the greatest musical performances in history, and I think he’s the greatest musical actor of all time. I love movie musicals, but I prefer movie musicals to be good movies rather than adhere to the source material, however much I love it. My favourite movie musical is probably Chicago. I don’t have any strong affinity or aversion to any of the actors in the film’s cast, except for Adrian Scarborough, who appears briefly as a back-alley dentist.
2. Translation and adaptation are similar processes that often aren’t approached in similar ways. The transition from one language to another, whether from French to English or stage to screen, requires the translator or adaptor to decide on some basic principles to guide their process. For example, when I translated Old English poetry in college, I had to decide each time if I wanted to preserve the plain meaning of words in the age they were written or recreate the sentiment behind them in more contemporary speech. I had to decide whether sailors crossed the sea or the whale-road, and whether to abandon the poems’ original alliteration, preserve it, or reproduce it as rhyme, which fulfils a roughly analogous purpose in English poetry from the Middle Ages onward to what alliteration did in Old English poetry. Similarly, in adaptations, especially adaptations from one artistic form to another, the adaptor must ask what they’ll keep and what they’ll cut from the source text, and how they’ll recreate what they keep in the language of the destination form. If there is a single unifying complaint behind my critique of Tom Hooper’s Les Mis, it’s that I don’t think Tom Hooper ever hammered out the principles that would guide his adaptation, and the film is a complete mess because of it.
3. Before we go any further, let’s talk about Russell Crowe. Yes, Russell Crowe was horribly miscast in Les Mis. No, it’s not because he can’t sing. Russell Crowe can sing just fine. But he’s playing a character who bellows most of his lines, and Russell Crowe only manages a successful bellow once in the film, after he’s been exposed by Gavroche and captured by the revolutionaries. Outside of that one verse in the whole musical, Crowe’s singing voice is very, very soft, and it almost never works. To be honest, what Hooper seems to have been trying to do with the character of Javert in this film is one of the more understandable and well-intentioned changes he attempted with his interpretation. Against more hard-hearted or outright villanous portrayals of Javert, such as those by Phillip Quast or Norm Lewis, it seems like Hooper wanted his Javert to have more heart, and to struggle more as the story proceeded. The moment when Javert pins his medal on Gavroche’s corpse is a good example of the interpretation of the character that Hooper was aiming for, a Javert that doesn’t snap or break, but crumbles gradually, and it makes sense that he’d cast someone with a softer singing voice than Phillip Quast, Norm Lewis, Roger Allam, Michael McCarthy or Terrence Mann. Unfortunately, he went too soft with Russell Crowe, who lacks the range in volume (aka dynamics) necessary to traverse the peaks and valleys of a showstopper like “Stars”, even though he has a perfectly fine range in pitch, and can even hit Javert’s difficult low note in “The Confrontation”. I think a lot of people made more hay out of mocking Crowe’s performance than was necessary or fair, especially since his acting was pretty good for the most part.
4. Musicals are an inherently absurd and ridiculous art form, because they present an inherently absurd and ridiculous reality where people sing all the time. But plays have had musical components for as long as they’ve existed, and it’s generally worked out just fine because the stage is an abstract and unreal space with imaginary or impossible geometries of space and time where it’s easy for the audience to buy into the absurd and the ridiculous. Preserving the underlying unreality of what’s unfolding has therefore always been a key aspect of adapting musicals for the screen. In times past, when film shared more with the stage, both in terms of set design and acting styles, the transition was easier to manage, but it’s become more of a challenge as film has tended more towards realism in visual composition and naturalism in acting. Successful film adaptations of stage musicals in recent years have recreated that crucial unreality in other ways, whether it’s Chicago presenting all its musical numbers as imaginary sequences or the heightened, stylised, gothic world of Sweeney Todd. Tom Hooper’s Les Mis betrays no such consistent artistic strategy and it’s the moments when its visual realism and naturalistic acting collide with the absurd and ridiculous fact that these people are singing for some reason that the film is genuinely cringe-inducing. This is especially true of Les Mis because it’s a sung-through musical and has almost no quiet scenes of straight acting to buffer the audience. Most musicals are and always have been tongue-in-cheek comedies or bombastic melodramas precisely because of how ludicrous a form it is, and Les Mis is one of the most bombastic and melodramatic of them all. Without any unifying unreal aesthetic to ground its source material, the film is often dissonant and unpleasant to watch.
5. I use the terms “consistent” and “unifying” a lot because there are some scenes, though they are few and far between, where Hooper does manage to approach something like the kind of visual strategy he needed to make the film work. I’m thinking in particular of how he shoots “Lovely Ladies”, a song that’s both sinister and wacky, in a style reminscent of Terry Gilliam, with lots of Dutch angles and exaggerated use of light and shadow to convey the scene’s weird collision of horror and humour. In fact, if there’s any sequence that gets close to a winning visual logic, it’s “Lovely Ladies”, shot in Gilliamesque fashion, followed by Fantine’s rape, filmed in a flat shot with all the action to one side of the frame (a signature Hooper shot), followed by “I Dreamed a Dream”, a close-up long take that is undoubtedly the best scene in the entire film. As outstanding as Anne Hathaway’s performance is, a lot of that scene’s impact comes from the sudden shift from the fast-moving and over-the-top direction of “Lovely Ladies” to the brutal stillness of the rape scene right before it. In those scenes, the camera is used in a way that matches what’s happening on the screen and which fits into an emotional arc across the scenes in a way that never happens elsewhere in the film. “Master of the House” in particular could have used more of that Gilliamesque energy, rather than seemingly taking cues from similar scenes in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd without understanding why those scenes work.
6. As long as I’ve brought up “Master of the House”, can I just point out that I’m pretty sure the Thénardiers’ name isn’t mentioned until Marius is trying to kick them out of his wedding at the end of the film? I can’t really remember if their name is mentioned in the stage musical before that moment, but, regardless, amidst all the random bits of “funny” dialogue that Hooper gives the Thénardiers for weak laughs, it seems like it would have been helpful for filmgoers unfamiliar with the musical to either give their name or cut it from the wedding scene lyrics.
7. The film’s inconsistent visual aesthetic is also a big problem for its set design. All the sets are largely realistic, except for the shipyard set for “Lovely Ladies”, where the unreality makes sense, and the café where the revolutionaries erect the barricade, where it does not. I don’t know why Tom Hooper wanted to stage the revolution in Diagon Alley, but it makes that whole stretch of the movie very difficult to take seriously when it’s surrounded by scenes with more realistic sets. The Thénardiers’ inn doesn’t look half as comical, and it’s the location for the musical’s comedy number.
8. I can imagine a reader questioning why I didn’t include the giant wooden elephant where Gavroche and his friends live as an example of unrealistic set design. I didn’t include the giant wooden elephant, which located in some sort of walled-off shantytown in a small square in the centre of Paris, because I don’t even get what that set is supposed to be? Maybe it’s a real place that actually looked like that in 1832, but as a filmgoer in 2012, I was just confused by it, and haven’t grown any less confused with time, especially since it’s not really a set, since no action takes place there, just adjacent to it, so I’m not too sure why it’s even in the film.
9. In fact, there’s a lot I don’t understand about Hooper’s Paris, particularly its geometry. The most confusing scene in the film is when Javert chases Valjean and Cosette through the streets of Paris. Valjean and Cosette climb through a hole in the city walls, and then suddenly they’re running along some sort of courtyard with marble columns, and Javert just appears behind them on horseback, having somehow teleported from the front gate to wherever the hell Valjean and Cosette are. Valjean and Cosette hop down onto a lower street and Javert follows on foot, but they just run through a series of narrow alleyways that don’t seem to connect in any way. At one point, Javert finds a huge door and starts banging on it, but Valjean and Cosette never went through a similarly large door? Valjean finds a length of rope in some sort of courtyard and manages to get both himself and Cosette onto a high wall, where Javert appears out of nowhere moments later. I couldn’t tell at any point where Javert and Valjean were in relation to each other as they ran through the alleys, and what was supposed to be a tense scene just ended up confusing.
10. Also, why don’t the revolutionaries have anyone stationed at the rear of the café? We know it’s possible to approach the café from the rear because Javert leaves from the rear when Valjean frees him, but no one ever attacks from the rear. Even if the soldiers didn’t know about a rear access point, the revolutionaries presumably did, and should have placed men there to guard it. I suppose that’s a problem that originates in the stage musical, where the same scene happens, but without the physical specifity of the film’s set, it’s easier for the audience to imagine that Javert slips away in some vague fashion by walking off the stage rather than running down an alleyway we can actually see and which the revolutionaries aren’t guarding for some reason. This is kind of a nitpick but it points once again to Hooper’s failure to manage the transition from the ambiguity of the stage to the specificity of the screen.
11. Here’s a good rule for movie musicals: singing is action, not dialogue, and should be shot like action, not dialogue. Now, Hooper does often shoot singing as action, but the problem here is the word “often”. Possibly because it felt like a natural way to shoot the scene once he’d established he was going to use an excessive amount of close-ups, “A Heart Full of Love” is filmed in simple shot/reverse shot, like a dialogue scene, with only occasional cuts to Éponine giving a third reaction shot, and it’s the most boring thing committed to film since any given dialogue scene in the Star Wars prequels. I might even excuse that one song for being shot that way as an intentional breakage of the rule for effect that just didn’t work as intended, but during “One Day More”, the camera shoots Valjean, Cosette and Marius’s lines as action, with motion, then cuts to a series of almost exclusively still flat shots of Éponine for her first few lines, then back to action for everyone else, and it’s just jarring as all hell, because it’s the only point in that entire song when the camera isn’t moving, and it doesn’t match up in any way with the rhythm of either the song or the emotional arc of the sequence. Boring still shots also plague “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, among other songs.
12. One of the stranger things about Tom Hooper’s Les Mis is that he brought back elements from the original novel on which the musical itself is based. I presume he was trying to reintroduce material that was cut for the stage musical because it could be given to the audience in the program, like the fact that Marius is from a wealthier social class than Éponine, which is explained to us in the film by having Marius’s stuffy upper-crust grandfather denounce him at a rally, and then by Éponine asking Marius if he’s still pretending to be poor, just to hammer it home. I haven’t read the entire screenplay for the film adaptation, but I do know it originally contained some exposition on Thénardier’s background in the Napoleonic Wars, which seems like a sensible thing to cut if you need to cut. But with only the finished product in mind, I’m truly baffled by what Hooper decided to restore from the novel and what he decided to leave out. Restoring Marius’s grandfather for that one scene at the rally was fine, but bringing him back at the end of the film and awkwardly inserting some lines for him to sing in “A Heart Full of Love (Reprise)” was bizarre. On the other hand, it seems like it would have added a lot of emotional texture to the barricade scenes to make Gavroche and Éponine siblings again, like they are in the novel. I just don’t understand why Hooper apparently thought the audience would find it enormously emotionally rewarding to see Marius reunited with his dickhead grandfather at the end of the film.
13. The barricade scenes needed more blood. When you have Javert singing the revolutionaries “will wet themselves with blood” in “One Day More”, you kind of think the film is going to follow through, especially because its version of Javert is moved by the violence and devestation of the battle at the barricades. We see some blood on the streets after the battle, and already-dry streams of blood sometimes appear on the revolutionaries’ faces mid-battle but there’s no bloodshed. The film’s aversion to blood is particularly pathetic and distracting when it comes to the death of Gavroche, who appears to die from a fatal bullet to the nowhere. I’m not saying his head needed to explode, but there should at least have been a visible wound. The battle at the barricade is supposed to be brutal, not bloodless.
14. Speaking of distracting deaths, the unnecessary and extremely loud sound of Javert’s spine cracking as he hits the weir after jumping off the bridge is the funniest thing in film history and should be taught in film schools as an example of how not to do good foley. I rewatched Les Mis on New Year’s Eve with my family and it really took everyone out of the film when I started laughing my head off at one of the darkest and most dramatic moments in the story.
15. Another moment in the film where Javert was distractingly loud is, of course, “One Day More”, where Russell Crowe’s voice is way too prominent in the mix when everyone is singing their lines together, in what seems like a failed attempt to compensate for the softness of his voice.
16. Moving around song order in a musical is always tricky, since they’re linked to the plot, but in a sung-through musical, where every scene is at least a song, and many scenes are several songs, moving songs around is actually moving scenes around at best and chopping up scenes into pieces at worst if you’re not making enough changes. The only place where moving a song around seemed to achieve anything in this film was (again) “I Dreamed a Dream”, which usually takes place before “Lovely Ladies”. I’m especially confused by the intended effect of putting “Stars” before the second timeskip instead of after, which seems like it was supposed to imply Javert spent the intervening years on Valjean’s heels in a way the film never follows through on. Just like in the stage musical, when Javert reappears post-timeskip, it seems he’s just been getting on with life as a policeman.
17. I’m similarly confused by a lot of the changes to lyrics in the film. I think the most utterly inexplicable is when the lines “I run a business of repute/I am the mayor of this town” from “At the End of the Day” get reversed to “I am the mayor of this town/I run a business of repute”, which just messes up the rhyming scheme to no discernable effect, but the one I think about the most is how they cut the climactic line from the opening number (“How long, O Lord, before you let me die?”), so it never reaches its melodic peak and just kind of fizzles out all of a sudden before shuffling into the parole dialogue.
18. The quality of editing is a serious problem in this film, as if they were desparately shaving seconds from scenes wherever they could, but the person in charge of deciding which seconds were expendable was an energy being from outer space who didn’t understand human emotions. So many scenes end abruptly with a sudden cut to the next scene that robs the audience of the time needed to feel the emotion of the scene and really soak in the performances. Even the score is just cut off without notice at points, and that’s a serious problem for this film in particular.
19. I say that’s a serious problem for this film in particular because the score of the stage musical plays the whole way through scene transitions, and eases the audience through a lot of the story’s tonal shifts. Even apart from the haphazard way that Hooper moved around a lot of the songs in the middle of the score, cutting lots of that transitional music makes the abrupt, jarring cuts in the film even more abrupt and jarring, especially when tonally different songs smash up against each other. Les Mis on stage is a relentless and exhausting musical to watch (in a good way) even with the transitional music, but Hooper made it overwhelming and confusing, with lots of tonal whiplash, when he took it out.
20. I’m just saying that if I were editing this film for time, the first thing to go would be the Thénardiers’ stupid banter, not the connective tissue that holds the whole musical together.
21. The heightened sense of unreality on which the musical as a form depends makes all musicals a kind of fairytale and there is no more devastating a collision between musical fairytale and cinematic realism than the romance between Marius and Cosette. Their relationship is already a stretch in the stage musical, where the ambiguous and abstract space allows time to dilate to accommodate its ridiculousness, but the film is too concrete, and it just seems like the most stupid, absurd love-at-first-sight moment in film history, especially when the camera doesn’t even take the time to revel in that “whoosh” moment when they see each other and their hearts skip the same beat and their life is changed forever, because it’s too busy with the goddamn Thénardiers trying to rob Valjean.
22. There are two points in the film where Tom Hooper lingers lovingly on an eye-catching but ultimately boring object in the frame while characters sing at the margins of the screen. The first is the butterfly on the gate during “A Heart Full of Love”. The butterfly doesn’t do anything, it just sits there and flaps its little wings. You might think the butterfly is going to do something, if only to liven up the super dull shot/reverse shot, but it doesn’t, it just sits there, and it’s big and colourful and distracting and yet also completely uninteresting and I don’t know what Tom Hooper thought it would do for me, but it mostly just made me think “oh, there’s a butterfly”. The second is the big eye painted on the wall behind Valjean during “Bring Him Home”, and here I get what Hooper was going for, since “Bring Him Home” is a plea from Valjean to God, asking Him to watch over Marius. Clearly, the eye is supposed to represent God. However, the eye is just creepy as all hell and I can’t imagine why that could possibly be the intended effect since it appears during such a tender and heartwrenching moment in the film, unless Tom Hooper actually is an energy being from outer space who doesn’t understand human emotions.
23. There are actually a few other ways the film seems to struggle, or at least make weird choices, with regards to the huge role that Christianity holds in the story, the setting and the songs. Les Mis is a very Christian story that begins with its protagonist’s conversion to Christanity, with lots of casual references to God in almost every song, and several songs that are prayers. Both its protagonist and antagonist are deeply Christian, but with opposing views on the possibility of redemption in this life. I wouldn’t say that Tom Hooper downplays these elements necessarily, since he’s not scrubbing them out of the lyrics, but he does strange things like shoot “Valjean’s Soliloquy” in a closeup that obscures any overt Christian imagery in its church setting, especially the crucifix on the altar that Valjean prays before, which isn’t even clearly visible in the brief moments when the camera is pointed right at it because of how the set is lit. Even weirder, the exact same thing happens with the crucifix in the convent chapel where Valjean dies at the end of the film. I don’t think Tom Hooper had any nefarious anti-Christian agenda, but that just makes me more confused about these directorial choices.
24. I know a lot of people thought Anne Hathaway’s performance in this film was a cynical attempt to win an Oscar, and hate her for no reason even more than they did before because she did win an Oscar. I’ve even heard people say this of most of the people in the film, usually with the exception of Samantha Barks and Aaron Tveit, since their previous work was primarily in stage musicals, including Les Misérables. I don’t think anyone in this film was in it cynically, especially Anne Hathaway, mainly because if someone was gonna cynically join the cast of a musical to win awards, you’d think it’d be Into the Woods, since it was directed by the same guy as Chicago, and Chicago won Best Picture, as well as Best Supporting Actress for Catherine Zeta-Jones. I know Tom Hooper had just won Best Director for The King’s Speech five minutes before he started casting Les Mis, but Ron Howard won Best Director for A Beautiful Mind and it’s not like there was a sudden flood of ambitious actors desperate to star in his films.
25. I suppose I should talk about the excessive close-ups, since that was a thing people liked to mock a lot about the film, usually by insinuating they were Tom Hooper’s way to “prove” the singing was actually live. I never really understood how the close-ups were supposed to achieve that, but regardless, I mainly just found them boring rather than offensive to the senses. I do think the first major close-up scene, “Valjean’s Soliloquy”, is visually unpleasant, but mostly the film just needed more variety than one close-up after another, and their overuse throughout the film detracts from some of the better close-ups later in the film, like “On My Own”, which doesn’t have the same impact as “I Dreamed a Dream” did early in the film because of the flood of pointless close-ups in the meantime. Once again, this seems more like a product of a lack of governing logic to the adaptation process than a result of Tom Hooper’s insecurity as a person or an artist.
26. I began with a prologue, so here’s an epilogue: I sincerely think, despite all its many, many, many flaws, that Les Mis was a labour of love for all involved, and I respect them all for the ambition of what they were attempting, even if I think the film is a bit of a trainwreck. If nothing else, I’m grateful the film gave me an opportunity to essentially write a brief manifesto on how to adapt stage musicals for the screen in the form of this very long piece of commentary. I salute you, Tom Hooper, even though I think we both know that David Fincher should have won Best Director for The Social Network.