25 December 2012


It's a bad habit to review the reviewers, but I can't let a few of the things that have cropped up in almost all of the bad and most of the mixed reviews of the long-gestating film adaptation of 1980s mega-musical Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg go by without... without countering them, I'd like to say, but it's really more like I'm just going to be a pissy bitch.

Basically, I have it on good authority that the film is an embarrassment because it is sung-through, and that's kitschy; because it is extraordinarily overt about the things it wants you to feel, and that's tacky; because it has too many close-ups and too much hand-held camera, and that's- that's a fair criticism, actually, but we'll get there soon enough; because it is a contrived, over-the-top melodrama, and that's bullshit. Did I miss the memo where Victor Hugo's mammoth 1862 novel suddenly wasn't a unanimously praised masterpiece anymore? Because this film of the musical, whatever its flaws, is both a considerably better adaptation of the book than the stage version, and frankly, a better adaptation than any previous English-language movie version (it is the fourth, not counting a '70s TV adaptation), so if you want to start talking shit about the heaving melodrama in the story as presented here, you have to talk shit about Papa Hugo. And we do not talk shit about Papa Hugo at this blog.

At which point, I must admit to a few biases. Not just in favor of the bombastic, heaving musical that has been so broadly mocked by so many people (it lacks nuance, but Christ, it works), but in favor of a lot of other things going on here: musical movies, a curiously divisive genre, that happens to be my all-time favorite (if we're going to be stuck with sound in our movies - and, 80 years on, I take it that we are - might as well do something fun with it); melodramatic fiction of the 19th Century, my all-time favorite genre of literature; the specific social issues melodrama practiced by Victor Hugo in the deeply unsubtle source material, my all-time favorite novel; and deeply earnest stories about emotion that don't feel the need to check themselves in order to seem urbane or hip, something I grow ever more fond of as I become a more crotchety adult in a cynical age. Put it all together, and it's a sung-through melodrama about broadly-expressed emotions pitched right at your tear glands that has no shame about being what it is, and have I mentioned lately that opera is my all-time favorite artform, even more than movies?

In effect, I am, personally, this movie's ideal target audience. So that's the other reason I feel a bit bitchy about its reception, and also why you probably shouldn't take anything I say for the rest of this review at all seriously.

In all media, the nugget of the story is the same thing: after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her baby, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman, making his long-awaited - by some of us - movie musical debut) is released in 1815, in southeastern France; the savage laws of the day mean, in effect, that as an ex-convict, Valjean will never be able to live as a free man. He is prepared to repay society in kind for its cruelty, when the Bishop of Digne (Colm Wilkonson, the musical's original Valjean) offers him a single act of kindness, thus setting Valjean on a path of spiritual redemption, though Law and Order, embodied by the fierce police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is neither willing to forgive nor forget, and hounds Valjean for the next 17 years. That's plot A. In plot B, in 1832, several student revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) stage a (failed, ultimately) rebellion against the monarchist order, erecting barricades in the streets of Paris and demanding a return to Republican ideals in a country that had, in the previous several years, become an unlivable hellhole for the poor. This historical event is known as the June Rebellion, not the French Revolution, but I understand why some people have gotten confused on that point. After all, the movie only opens with a title card identifying the Revolution as an event in the past, and introduces the 1832 sequence with a title cared saying "Nine years later: 1832". It's not like it has a moment where the student revolutionaries sing, "Though this is a revolution / It's not, you know, the Revolution / That happened forty-three years ago."

The twin nuggets, then: one man, hounded by a cold system that, as Anatole France would write in 1894, "in its majestic equality, forbids the rich and the poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread"; and group of people paying with their lives in an attempt to change that system for the better. It is not a story of subtle propaganda: the socially active novelists of the mid-19th Century were more about howls of rage and less about cunning rhetoric. There's a lot more to the novel than that, and a lot more not just to this movie but to every other adaptation; still, even as crammed full and fast-paced as it is, the 157-minute musical film (containing no fewer than 11 "main" characters, 12 if we count Cosette and Young Cosette separately) represents a severely redacted version of Hugo's original, although, it must be pointed out, a fuller version than the stage musical. In fact, one of the most surprising things to me about this adaptation is that it fixes things with the musical's story that I hadn't even realised were problems: re-ordering a couple of songs so they made more emotional sense (though I am not sure that one of the more prominent shifts, moving the "I am unloved" lament "On My Own" earlier, achieves anything), and adding a very important scene for Javert to make his motivations considerable more sensible than onstage.

Still, that is one of the problems with this particular movie: it is rushed, and cramped, especially in the opening hour. A whole lot of material is thrown at the viewer in hardly any time, and not all of it makes perfect sense.

And there are problems to go around, too: as we've all heard, Tom Hooper brings back the wide-angle close-ups that infuriated so many people with The King's Speech in 2010, and this time he adds hand-held camera the mix. I can understand why some people are so upset with the former, though I personally think it works extremely well (though I thought it worked well in 2010, too, so I'm apparently just an idiot): the narrative scope and music are grand and epic, but the resolute focus on human faces - as I have said before, and will doubtlessly say again, the most cinematic object in all cinema - brings it back down to the people living and suffering, making a musical that paints in giant broad strokes intimate again. Anyway, it's not fucking medium shots, at least. You have to give it that much credit.

The hand-held camera, that sucks. I won't pretend otherwise. There are a few shots, in the run-up to the barricades, where the urgent stutter of hand-held works very well; but there are so many more shots where it plays exactly as it always plays, like a crappy and unpersuasive attempt at realism, where it's not required twice over: first, because Les Misérables is a costume drama, and those are usually better as they are less real, and second, because Les Misérables is a musical, the most un-realistic of all genres. There are, of a certainty, naturalistic and realistically-grounded musicals, but they aren't realistic.

Other problems: for some reason, the editing in the early going is a bit jarring: one cut in the prologue is a complete, laughable disaster, crossing the 180 line with cheery abandon; and the first big musical number, as compared to recitative, chops along in a rhythm that has nothing to do with the melody. But as it goes on, it becomes more ordered - the big act-break song, if the film had an act break, is a perfectly-edited montage spanning several characters in several locations, making me angry all over again that Tim Burton got so up his own ass with "plausibility" in making Sweeney Todd and cutting all the montage moments out of that film.

Russel Crowe is an uninteresting failure, trying too hard to sing convincingly and forgetting, in the process, to act; he's the worst part of the cast, but not the only weak link. Amanda Seyfried, playing the show's least-interesting part, Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette, has a thiny, reedy voice (but she's tossed offscreen the second that the barricade scenes start), and Eddie Redmayne as her lover, student revolutionary Marius, sings their duets in a nasal, Kermit-the-Frog voice - though he is quite good when they are separated, and his "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is one of the three absolute highlights of the picture. The film's worst crime as an adaptation is that the show's signature song, "Bring Him Home", is a fucking disaster: the camera reels around drunkenly, and Jackman, for the one time in the movie, seems completely unaware of how to sing: he belts a song that is meant to be a heartbreaking prayer, rending the main line as "Buh-ring! him hoewum" in a way that made me want to cry in all the wrong ways.

But the problems, I find, are mostly small, detail-based problems, and all iterations of Les Misérables are about the broad sweep, not the small details. And the broad sweep is a-okay: Anne Hathwaway's "I'mma make you cry now" sobbing during "I Dreamed a Dream", or the glorious populist roar of the barricade sequences (certainly the most robust and heaving part of the musical to begin with, for the whole thing is basically a revolutionary call to arms pitched at the cheap seats, and this was true of the high-priced show in 1985 as much as it was of the bestselling novel in 1862, though I think the middle-class audience for the show has mistaken the fact that this is all set in 1830s France a sign that it doesn't have political application for the modern day), or West End Les Miz vet Samantha Barks giving the film's best performance as tortured gamine Eponine - ironically, she's the best precisely because she has figured out better than anyone else how to modulate her performance down to movie screen size without lapsing into histrionic (as Hathaway does, just once), or burying the musical beneath too much movie-camera intimate whispering (as Jackman does, frequently).

Basically, the people complaining that the movie is an emotional harangue, that it shakes you down and screams at you to feel things, have mistaken a feature for a bug; yes that is what Les Misérables is doing, because that is what musical drama, as a class, is best at doing. It stages emotion rather than staging the events that generate emotion; it is unsubtle, but magnificently so. More importantly, Les Misérables does it really goddamn well: two and a half hours of nearly constant singing (there is, contrary to the reports, a solid two-dozen lines of spoken dialogue; two-dozen too many if you ask me, but nobody did. Anyway, anyone complaining about sung-through musicals is just being daft: if we had three or four a year, that would be a concern and a valid complaint, but once a decade or less? I think Western Civilization can survive one sung-through movie musical, especially one that isn't even technically sung-through), music that heaves vigorously and with just enough delicacy and nuance in the use of leitmotif that it doesn't make you feel stupid just for listening to it - a megamusical it is, Andrew Lloyd Webber it's not - and actors who fling themselves, choking and weeping and raging into the singing of it; by the way, the much-ballyhooed "live singing on set" works flawlessly, from where I'm standing, giving the actors leave to act through singing as well as it's ever been done in a movie, and resulting in one of the absolute cleanest, most involving soundscapes in any movie musical ever - the last time this kind of thing was done regularly, in the '30s, the technology of sound design being at a level of primitivism that really can't be defended on legitimate artistic grounds.

In short, everything the haters say is exactly right: it's wearying, emotionally bossy, it paints its themes in primary colors, and it would rather bowl you over than tease you and let you draw things out for yourself. Not one of those things is untrue. It's just that, as far as I can tell, there's nothing wrong with any of it. From here, Les Misérables looks like, incontestably, the best film musical since 2001, and certainly in the top rank of film musicals made in the last half-century.



Rick said...

That eye hovering over Jackman in the Bring Him Home number just creeped me out...and it was none-too-subtle in Valjean's plea to God to "watch" over Marius. I will agree that it was Jackman's weakest number (a shame): I sense he was forcing both the song and his voice here.

Les Misérables was respectful and reverential to the show, but I was not overwhelmed w/it as I was when I saw it on the stage. Good but not great.

MagicMeg said...

I love that you liked it, Tim, and I agree with nearly everything you said. Russell Crowe was just embarrassing, which is such a shame because Javert is one of my fav characters. I couldn't look at the screen every time he started singing. I don't fault Amanda Seyfried for her character's uninteresting-ness, though, Cosette was always the blandest of them all, no actress could have made her interesting.

I'm curious, though, what you think of the film's Oscar chances now that everyone's apparently jumping the Les Mis ship.

DeeperUnderstanding said...

Sigh, I unabashedly love the musical and was so looking forward to the movie but I have to say it left me cold. The combo of loooong unforgiving closeups and iffy singing just killed it. I was like, pick one - if I'm going to be up these people's noses they better be blowing my mind with their performances. If not, can we at least pull back and get some spectacle? I still cried 3 times but I'm not giving the filmmakers any credit for that, it's wired into my brain.

Caleb Wimble said...

Slow clap.

I have to be a bit harsher on the camerawork (which legitimately killed what would otherwise have been some of the most moving scenes for me) and Crowe's abysmal, ear-aborting non-performance, but you've written the first review that comes even close to matching my feelings on the film as a whole. The second act in particular was as much a home run as I could have hoped for.

Brian said...

Before I even finish the review, or read any other comments, I got to the point about the close-ups, and had to say what I've been feeling since the scene, so I am just going to copy/paste what I put on facebook right after getting home:

"As for Les Miserables? Let me just take a moment to thank Tom Hooper for the way he shot I Dreamed a Dream. The confidence he had in his actress (Anne Hathaway) and the respect he has for his audience... He shot the entire song in a one shot, while just slowly and slightly moving the camera around, trusting Hathaway's emotional performance to keep the audience's attention, and respected that his audience was not so addled minded that they needed several cuts and edits just to not lose interest. Did it work? Well, I was too captivated by what was on the screen to notice if anyone was fidgeting or turning away, but the only sound I heard in the theater during the entire song were a few people sniffling.

Which brings a second question: Did I cry during I Dreamed A Dream? You're god dammed right I did.

The rest of the movie was nearly perfect, except for Javert's two big numbers. Russell Crowe is a great actor, and his voice was good enough for the various ensemble pieces and bits where he would have a line or two at a time. But he simply is not a good enough singer for "Stars" or "Soliloquy" (I'm leaving out the rest of the title due to it being somewhat spoilerish.)

Anyone who both knows me and is familiar with Les Mis should not be the slightest bit surprised to learn that Eponine is my favorite character. A feisty young girl who decides to fight in what is essentially a socialist revolution, while lamented unrequited love? Of course she's my favorite character. I was not familiar with Samantha Barks before this film, but she is quite good in the role.

Grade: A And give Ms. Hathaway every award you can find."

I know I'm not supposed to apologize for long comments about films around here, but, that is pretty long, so, mea culpa anyway. Now, back to the review/comments/etc

Lucas said...

I have to ask - are the orchestrations any different? That's the one thing I've always hated about the show (except for "Do You Hear the People Sing?"). I hope no one was too attached to all those synthesizers and toms.

Also, glad to hear "One Day More" comes off well - it's the best moment of the musical in a walk (and fun to do at parties).

K Wild said...

Overall I loved it, but it was a rough beginning, even with the wonderful Anne Hathaway. Way too much dialogue in the beginning, which made it jarring when they sang lines. For instance, we hear Crowe speak in the beginning and it sounds good, but then he suddenly sings at a much higher pitch and it's like "Whaa?"

I felt like things settled down by "Master of the House" and were just fabulous by the time we got to the barricade scenes, which were super affecting as they should be.

Btw., Tim, was the 180 cut you refer to the cut between Javert speaking to Valjean in the beginning and then the part where he starts to sing? One second Crowe is to the far left; the next, he's to the far right.

Zev Valancy said...

Oh, so very many opinions on this one (which I would give a 7 or 8, depending on my mood):

Crowe's singing was terrible, unquestionably, and his acting was pretty blah. The worst part was that he was clearly putting in SO much effort, and getting so little out of it.

Seyfried's voice is thin, certainly, but I think she succeeded in doing a remarkable job at taking a character who's usually a simpering twit and turning her into a strong and interesting woman. Any Cosette I don't want to slap is a victory.

Hathaway was subtle as a brick, which was exactly the right choice for the role. Not every sound she made was pretty, but the singing was perfect for the part. And the simplicity with which "I Dreamed A Dream" was filmed made up for a lot.

Jackman was wildly inconsistent. I can't understand why he sounded so good sometimes, so pinched and nasal at others.

It was almost sad how frequently the small parts showed up the leads, in fact. They were liberated by not having to get stars to get some truly excellent voices for tiny parts like the Foreman, or that soldier who told them to surrender.

And finally (for now): for a film that was so obsessed with the dirt and ugliness of the setting (not to mention the occasional sores), the teeth were GLEAMINGLY white and straight. I mean, Fantine was literally a syphilitic prostitute, and her face, hair, etc looked (appropriately) like hell, but her teeth looked like she'd come straight from the dentist. And we certainly got to see inside a lot of mouths in this film. It would bother me less if the rest of the film weren't so obsessive about realism, but it was pretty glaring.

Tim said...

So many comments! I hope no-one will be offended if I just quickly respond to a few points:

-Unlike many of you, I actually preferred the movie to any live production I've seen. Could be partially that I never learned to watch theater like I learned to watch movies, but I feel like the show is so much about HOT DOG, LOOK AT THAT SPECTACLE, and the movie really is, to me, more intimate.

Of course, it's not remotely a definitive cast - though Hathaway and Barks might be my current favorites in those roles - but I think that, between the mise en scène and the improved script - I'm happy to call it a definitive staging.

-Poor, poor Crowe. FWIW, he didn't seem so terrible the second time I watched it.

-"Master of the House" is actually one of my least-favorite parts. I though Sacha Baron Cohen was all wrong, though I didn't particularly mind Helena Bonham Carter. And the editing was wonky.

-Not only are the teeth too white, there are actually two characters - Mme. Thenardier and Gavroche - where they actually went ahead and dirtied up their teeth, making it even more distracting that nobody else had dental problems.

Kara, that is exactly the cut I was referring to. Least favorite single moment of the whole movie.

Lucas, the orchestrations are revelatory. Not a single synthesizer anywhere. By far the best the music has ever sounded.

Meg, I think that Oscar-wise, Hathaway is a complete lock no matter what. Other than that, box office will tell the tale, but I do not think it will get a Director nomination, and that ends its chances at a Picture win.

Zev Valancy said...

I don't think the humor of "Master Of The House" is all that funny to begin with, and the extremely gross images in this version made the whole thing pretty bizarre and unpleasant.

AJM said...

Just a quick note on the teeth comment (Zev): I can't say I noticed this, but Fantine in particular is supposed (a la Hugo) to have perfect teeth. That's why she is approached to sell them.

Jason said...

Great stuff. I must say: you're a very astute critic (much moreso than Nathaniel over at The Film Experience, whose pundit stuff I love to read and whose reviews I've abandoned). This is a splendid blog, and a review of Les Miserables that makes me ever more anxious to see it. (We're going tomorrow night.) My question is: when did close-ups become anathema? Are these snippety critics not Bergman fans?

franklinshepard said...

Finally saw this. I agree with most of your criticisms, but I think you just like the material more than me. This in particular: "music that heaves vigorously and with just enough delicacy and nuance in the use of leitmotif that it doesn't make you feel stupid just for listening to it" - I can't agree with.

Why does the Bishop's redemptive music ("I have bought your soul for God") turn up again as Marius's grieving lament for his revolutionary brothers? Why does Fantine's death music become Eponine's torch song? Why does "Lovely Ladies" become a bit about how sad it is that the students are dead? Honestly, I have more of a problem with leitmotif in this show than I do in some Andrew Lloyd Webber pieces because it just seems so thrown-together at times.

MagicMeg said...

BTW, what did you think of the new song?

Tim said...

The new song was pretty bland, I thought. It's brief reappearance with Cosette near the end actually felt better, dramatically and emotionally.

Vianney said...

Interesting. I saw the mark, and by the end of the second paragraph i was convinced that for once, I'd be able to jump to the comments section and scream my difference of opinion, finally free of my Tim Brayton fanboyism. Oh well, another time maybe.

The thing is, I pretty much agree with everything you say, but I also pretty much agree with everything this guy says:
... well, to an extent. I'm not a big musicals fan, and musically find this one to be hit and miss, but definitely better than quite a few broadway shows.
More to the point, I agree with a review I had heard on Fresh Air which was quite the galling indictment, from the terrible editing to the closeups and pointless swirling, to some of the performances, etc.

So for me, all the problems that you describe in minute detail but then brush off as unimportant, really bugged me for a good half of the movie. I was alternately furious, bored to death, asleep and utterly confused... but also alternately roused, moved, gut-wrenched, awestruck, and, finally, for days after, obsessed.


RickR said...

I'm going to pass on this one. I'm in the category of viewer who was left completely cold by the stage production (I saw it in a big Los Angeles venue in the late 80's or early 90's) and scratching my head over its phenomenal mega-popularity.
I guess it's the music- 50 (+or-) songs and they mostly bleed together like ink on wet newspaper.
I generally really enjoy musicals, but "Les Mis" just didn't do it for me.

I think "Django Unchained" might be more up my alley. ;)

DerFuhrer said...

Finally this came out in the UK. To be fair though, the French have a worse release date than us, and it was their damn book in the first place.

Oh Russell Crowe. I don't know, his version of Stars is the prettiest version I have ever heard. He's sort of like a cuddly teddy bear version of Javert, which is the worst possible iteration of Javert. But still, I felt more sorry for Crowe more than actual hatred, in an AWWH sort of way. Is that weird?

I still wish that someone on set, anyone really, could have told Jackman that yes, you can use the head voice for Bring Him Home, and no one will stop you. Apparently he sang it 17 times on set? I mean, my God, that's really impressive vocal stamina to belt that song in its original pitch, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

I'll just say that I'm really glad that Samantha Barks is in instead of say, Taylor Swift. And that there is not a single Jonas brother in sight.

Speaking of which, did you watch any of the Anniversary Concerts?

Vianney said...

Also, can't really disagree with that guy:

so, yeah, conflicted.