Jackman and Hathaway save flashy 'Les Miserables'
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Quite a few years ago, a colleague of mine recounted how he, at the behest of a spouse, had gone to see the Broadway stage production of the mega-musical "Les Miserables." Having been able to procure only relatively inexpensive seats, the pair was situated in an upper balcony of the theater, from where, he reported with some bemusement, the spectacle looked like "a football game in which the players were wearing early 19th-century French costumes."
Were my friend inclined to catch up on the show again (which he's likely not, even out of base curiosity) the new motion picture version of it might be less alienating on a certain level. Director Tom Hooper, whom we last saw receiving a Best Director Oscar for the "distinguished" and somewhat popular "The King's Speech," brings the action right up to the front, as it were. And what action!
This musical is, as many of you know, based on an epic novel by Victor Hugo, who was to the depiction of suffering French people what Charles Dickens was to the depiction of suffering British people, and between poverty, fomenting revolution, corruption and personal obsession, there's plenty of suffering here. Suffering with singing! The huge cast apparently did all of their own singing on the set, and their commitment shows. But commitment goes only so far in certain respects. Only Hugh Jackman, who plays the story's hero of a thousand economic conditions, Jean Valjean, and Anne Hathaway, who plays the unfortunate factory girl turned working girl, Fantine, bring real musical-theater chops to their efforts. Russell Crowe, who plays Inspector Javert, who watched over the imprisoned Valjean and is incredibly vexed to encounter him as a successful civil servant many years later, once sang in a kind of pub-rock band, and it shows: Whenever he opens his mouth, he brings to mind the gruff ambition of one of the rock singers on the original recording of "Jesus Christ Superstar." Also, singing seems to take up so much of his concentration that he really isn't able to do anything too much about his character. Not so Jackman, who should get a Nobel Prize for the way he carries pretty much this whole undertaking on his shoulders, so protean and virile is his singing and acting throughout.
Hooper was, I gather, similarly impressed by Jackman, and by the rest of his cast, because he quite often brings his camera quite close to them. During many of the songs, in which this character or that might be confiding to someone unseen his or her hopes and fears and despairs, Hooper frames that character in a medium close-up that begins in a stationary position and then backs away as the singing character walks forward, for some reason. Maybe the character is putting across his or her point by being in motion while singing louder. Hooper pulls this move an awful lot, and its effect is interesting maybe once, and then it gets to be a drag. (I was reminded of Joshua Logan's disastrous strategy for handling Cinemascope dimensions in his movie version of "Camelot," which was to fill up half the frame with a gigantic close-up of the singer/actor's face with a kind of undifferentiated field of castle-brown in soft focus taking up the other half of the screen. OK, Hooper's signature shot isn't nearly so awful, but the fact that it reminded me of Logan says something.)
I admit here that it's somewhat doubtful that anyone who's cherished the stage musical, or the cast recordings of it, or the cover versions of "I Dreamed a Dream" and such by Susan Boyle and no doubt many others are going to be particularly bothered by this cinematographic filigree. It's quite likely that they'll be highly impressed by the largely gargantuan production design and costuming and by the fact that the large cast does all of its own singing and that the singing was largely performed live. I myself was a little miffed that the production design was bolstered by a lot of CGI effects and that the first shot of Inspector Javert looked literally like an outtake from last year's motion-capture-animation "Tintin" movie. I was also undelighted with a chase scene in which Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette elude Javert in a chase around "the north gate of Paris" that is so bereft of credible spatial relationships that it might as well have been enacted in the rafters of that theater in which much of the newfangled screen adaptation of "Anna Karenina" is largely set.
And it is not as if my film-critic carping is any match for the innate sweep of the story, or for the ever-building grandeur of the score and the songs (the music is by Claude-Michel Schönberg, no relation whatsoever to the 12-tone guy), or, again, the commitment of the performers. Still not to be a Johnny One-Note about it or anything, but as someone whose taste in show tunes is more aligned with the era of Ziegfeld and the Schuberts than that of the super-productions of Cameron Mackintosh (this and "Miss Saigon" are two of the theatrical impresario's biggest), I don't get much out of the songs that are, all production value aside, the things that have to sell this iteration of Hugo's epic.
But such is merely my own darn taste. Most of the show's partisans I've encountered have been pretty high on the movie version. But I do wonder if the rousing choir that asks, "Will you join in our crusade?" is going to be able to win many further converts.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.