Tom Hooper’s film adaptation of Les Misérables suffers from a lack of imagination and an unwillingness to commit to its new, cinematic form. The decision to cast big-name actors over singing-talent forces Hooper into an awkward position, with neither Jackman (Jean Valjean) nor Crowe (Javert) able to carry the film. However, the cast is bolstered by impressive performances from the three leading ladies: Anne Hathaway (Fantine), Amanda Seyfried (Cosette), and Samantha Barks (Éponine).
Following the fortunes of ex-convict Jean Valjean, who is unable to escape the daemons of his past, Les Misérables spans seventeen years and the fate of France’s burgeoning socialist movement. As he attempts to bring good into the world, helping first the prostitute Fantine and then her daughter Cosette, Valjean is hounded by the film’s antagonist Javert, who learns only at the close of the film how to display mercy in place of his relentless pursuit of the law. However, the elusive Valjean finds himself embroiled in the 1832, June rebellion when one of the student rebels, Marius (Eddie Redmayne), falls in love with his adopted daughter, forcing Valjean to surface from his hiding long enough for Javert to reignite an old hatred. The revolution is crushed but Valjean manages to rescue Marius’s life so that Cosette’s love might flourish. Although almost every major character is killed during the course of the film, Hooper offers a ray of hope, absent from Hugo’s novel, with the suggestion that the rebellion lives on in the hearts of the people.
Cinematically this film is a disaster. The epic sweep of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel becomes stiflingly claustrophobic as Hooper insists on endless facial close-ups of the singing characters; one starts to wonder whether this is simply a lack of vision on the part of cinematographer Danny Cohen, or if Hooper’s decision to record the film’s vocals on set, rather than pre-record with lip-syncing, forced his hand. If the former, then this is disappointing from a man whose work on the recent film adaptation of Richard II and the 2006 success This is England promised so much; if the latter, then this is simply the first in several poor decisions by the director. Indeed, the entire film remains static with each new song, and one is left feeling dissatisfied by the jerky transitions between set-piece scenarios.
The choice of Russell Crowe to play Javert is one that is difficult to justify. Crowe’s ability as an actor is unquestionable, with his performance in the 2001 A Beautiful Mind ranking amongst the best; however, acting talent must come second to vocal ability when casting the lead role in a musical. Likewise, Jackman was a poor choice for such a pivotal character as Valjean. One weak singer might have been excusable, but when both male-leads fail to perform, there has been a serious lapse of judgment on the part of the casting director. Both men struggle on admirably but are brutally exposed when the ensemble cast fades away, leaving them to perform alone.
However, the singing is not all bad. Hathaway demonstrates the perfect combination of vibrant acting and doleful singing, drawing us into the world of the film in a way that musicals, owing to their non-representational nature, often struggle to achieve. Her rendition of the famous ‘I dreamed a dream’ was a particular triumph, which she delivered with a mixture of anger and sadness. Barks’s portrayal of Éponine is also wonderful, her year playing the character in the West End production of Les Misérables paying dividends upon her transfer to the big screen. However, after finding such gems, Hopper and the audience share the same disappointment as each character in turn is killed.
A highlight of the film has to be the double-act between Helena Bonham Carter (Madame Thénardier) and Sacha Baron Cohen (Monsieur Thénardier). Reunited after their success in Tim Burton’s 2007 screen adaptation of Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd, the two Britons add a touch of comedy to the film and break up the monotony of self-indulgent introspection. Though Baron Cohen slips confusingly between a French and Cockney accent, all is forgiven as he playfully adapts his songs to the scene before him. The two remind us of Beckett’s Hamm and Clov; their bickering belies an inter-dependency born of love.
It is surely no coincidence that this film has been released during the slow aftermath of the global economic collapse. Much of the film’s revolutionary imagery is reminiscent of the Occupy movement, protesting against the mishandling of the financial sector and the income inequality between the ‘have’s and ‘have-not’s. The bourgeois revolution of Les Misérables, with the idealistic students unsupported by those they hoped to free, draws tragic parallels to the futile middle-class protest that the Occupy movement came to symbolize. What we ultimately learn from the film, however, is perhaps startling in this context: that money does buy happiness. Cosset is lifted out of poverty with Valjean’s industrial capitalist earnings, whilst Marius awakes from his botched rebellion in the aristocratic home of his grandfather; all previous declarations by the young man that he will not spend a penny he has not earned are quickly forgotten when he seeks to impress his new fiancé.
With a budget of $61 million and a box office taking already in excess of $280 million, Les Misérables has proved a sound investment; however, the inadequacies of this production are too glaring to allow one to slip into comfortable viewing, and at over two and half hours long, one cannot help but feel relieved when the film draws to its conclusion.
W. J. Humphries