Death of a Thousand Cuts: “Les Miserables” (2012)

lesmiserables   There are a thousand reasons to dislike Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables”, not the least reason being the perfectly execrable vocal renditions of the familiar Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil/Herbert Kretzmer score, stagnantly directed with a paralyzing laziness of directorial imagination which glues the camera to the lesmiserablesOSface of the performer to remind everyone who is responsible for each felonious infraction of the minimal performance standards expected in a musical by a ticket buying public. Nor is the film’s narrative truncation of an already understandably abbreviated version of such a mammoth novel the most egregious offense. No, what distinguishes the film as an abysmal act of creative incompetence is the complete absence of an aesthetic design. “Les Misérables” may be the most poorly edited major motion picture ever; its disastrously- apparently random -dramatic rhythms, mismatched shots and contradictory musical tempos make for the first three hour film designed as a drive-in trailer. Whether there was sufficient coverage for the scenes once they hit the editing room might explain the sense that every sequence is visually padded with inconsequential material: half of the shots in the film could be eliminated without any effect to the story whatsoever. This may be the first film in history in which every frame of exposed footage, every angle and every outtake may have found its way into the final product. There is an immense quantity of narrative shorthand compensated for by the worst collective computer special effects yet seen in such a high-profile production, the visual imagery often possibly mistaken for preliminary production design renderings, with so little convincing detail readily apparent.

     Yet these visual  horrors pale beside the irredeemably fractured nature of the drama. Every major character is undeveloped, unaccounted for at key moments or crushed by the sweeping movement of a mise-en-scene gone completely out of control. The events of the novel have an epic charge, a universality for the condition of Man both in the dichotomy ofLes Miserables spiritual devotion, mirrored in the antagonists Valjean and Javert; the first who pursues a sympathetic purity toward his fellow citizens due to an unexpected act of charity which alters his life, and the latter equally dedicated to a purity of his fellow man, but perverted by a consuming certainty that purity in spirit and the law are one and the same. Despite the epic passions, the characters are nonetheless dwarfed, though not minimized, by the violent currents of history under whose cruel ministrations allow for the intercession of fate as a catalyst in their lives as much as direct, conscious action. However, in this adaptation, none of the performers are allowed to develop their characters, instead floating in and out of the ragged remnants of the story and the cluttered production as wraiths in a tempest; desperately grasping for any  moments which somehow might form a dramatic quilt in which some semblance of dramatic continuity might emerge. Those unfamiliar with Hugo’s novel, the stage production, past film adaptations or even the Classics Illustrated comic book abbreviation, might find themselves lost in the jumbled but disconnected narrative. Dramaturgy which requires the use of footnotes to clarify its intentions can certainly be judged a failure, and so it is with Tom Hooper’s “Les Misérables”.

    Neither Hugh Jackman nor Russell Crowe, as Valjean and Javert respectively, seem comfortable in their roles; understandable since neither is given sufficient screen time to develop a reasonable dramatic arc exploring their characters, and since the film concedes to maintaining the stage production’s sing-through dialogue, a clarity of expressiveness is necessary to mine the richly evocative lyrics.  In Crowe’s case, there is no sense of urgency in his performance, though his flat musical interpretations are, at least, on key and melodicallylesmiserables3 identifiable. Less might be said of Hugh Jackman’s one-dimensional, colorless turn which is musically handicapped by his songs being transcribed into an uncomfortably high register. This capable actor, who has proven his vocal strengths on the stage, is made to sound wincingly elfish, his voice straining to hit notes beyond his comfortable reach: when Valjean performs his magisterial verses, the reedy voice which emerges sounds as if it were dubbed by John Hurt. The histrionics passing as performance by the unfortunate Anne Hathaway who finally found her way convincingly in a role in (of all things) Christopher Nolan’s bloated and confused “The Dark Knight Rises” -regresses shamelessly into a session of primal scream therapy in her unintelligible rendering of the tragic Fantine. Never before have song lyrics been performed with such a succession of guttural noises whose categorization in the realm of Song Stylists could only be described as “interpretivelesmiserables1 mucus streaming”. Of the remaining principals, only Samantha Barks emerges relatively unscathed, her Éponine equally devoid of context, but when she opens her mouth and the crystalline voice of a genuine singer emerges, the effect is electric: here is a sample of what might have been- despite the interfering incompetence of Tom Hooper and his army of technicians -if all of the performers had been sensibly cast with the basic ability to perform the songs. This need for performing talent rooted in legitimate musical abilities is amply demonstrated in the overabundant attention paid to the show’s unfortunate concession to English Music Hall theatrics: the Thénardiers. As portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen (a pair who, after this film and Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd”, seem poised to poison every period musical film in production) this unhappy duo tediously grimace, mug and cavort to the point of exhaustive, inept vulgarity. These unhappily numerous sequences also emphasize one of the great mysteries surrounding every incarnation of this musical which is touched by British hands: since the film takes place in France, why is it that the more a character descends the social class ladder, the thicker the Cockney accent?movie

About chandlerswainreviews

I've been a puppet, a pirate, a pauper, a poet, a pawn and a king, not necessarily in that order. My first major movie memory was being at the drive-in at about 1 1/2 yrs. old seeing "Sayonara" so I suppose an interest in film was inevitable. (For those scoring at home- good for you- I wasn't driving that evening, so no need to alert authorities.)Writer, critic and confessed spoiler of women, as I have a tendency to forget to put them back in the refrigerator. My apologies.
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6 Responses to Death of a Thousand Cuts: “Les Miserables” (2012)

  1. I loved the book, especially one excellent translation, and have loved every adaptation. The story itself is so good and so diverse, how can anyone go wrong? Except in reading, not visuals, there are nuances and phraseology that slam home the point with exquisite clarity. Of course, film has it’s own subtleties that can etch a scene on your heart and mind, but not quite in the same way.

    As for Les Miserable the movie musical, I must respectfully diverge from your chosen path. Hubby and I loved it. But I’m sure your comparisons are a lot different from ours. We grew up in a cultural vacuum except for our personal reading and observations. But that also gives us a simplistic point of view to just be able to enjoy something for what it is. That’s not to say we like junk. But, the music in Les Miserable seemed emotionally honest, the same way Gerard Butler’s voice was in “Phantom of the Opera”. Many real opera fans hated the coarseness of his voice. I thought it gave depth and power to the words he was singing.

    But one of the reason’s Mike and I love your blog is that you widen our perspective of film. You show us the craft of film making as well as its impact. Sometimes impact seems to come out of nowhere and takes on a life of its own. You take a little of the mystique out of that, like someone explaining a magic trick. We enjoy that, too, and you always make valid points.

    Still a follower. Keep writing the good stuff.

  2. Teepee12 says:

    Didn’t like the book, either. Not in English nor in French. Found it (gasp) boring.

  3. Bret Rickert says:

    It’s not a coincidence that the only good performance came from, the one person who played her role on stage, Samantha Barks. I loved the play and saw it numerous times. The first time was from the back row when I was in college, then two more times each closer to the stage. The final time was from the 4th row. All performed by the original Broadway cast. Colm Wilkison, who played the bishop in the movie, will always be Jean Valjean to me. I didn’t expect to love the movie, I wanted to just like it. For the reasons you list it failed, However you left out the biggest disaster, Amanda Seyfried, my ears are bleeding just thinking of the singing.
    For me to enjoy Les Mes, I play the Broadway soundtrack, close my eyes and I’m back in the theater.
    The story is in the music, between the over-the-top visuals and poor vocals, the movie lost the story.

    • Oh, where to begin? You are quite right. Seyfried’s “singing” was more like a confusion between a yodel and gargling, simply horrible. And who encouraged Eddie Redmayne in the scene where he’s running to meet Cosette to all of a sudden wander stiffly and aimlessly like Frankenstein’s monster approached by villager’s torches? I did say there were a thousand reasons to hate the film. I envy your seeing the Broadway originals. I have a similar annoyance with “Chicago” which I saw in its original Bob Fosse form with the original cast, and find that film unwatchable. In the case of “Les Miserables”, it appears to be the world’s most expensive karaoke session. Who could begin to fathom the thinking behind that?

      • missellen says:

        AMEN! The best review I’ve seen of a disappointingly disappointing film. It was like watching a soundtrack pieced together in terribly narrativised music videos. Where’s the context? Where’s the fabula? Though I must disagree with you on the Cohen and Carter moments, terribly relieving from the god-awful want-to-walk-out Russell Crowe moments. Great, honest, deservingly scathing review. Love it.

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