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 face 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 of 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 melodically 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 “interpretive 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?