I’m not a fan of Les Mis, but ‘m a non-fan through omission only; I’ve never seen it performed on stage nor have I even attempted Hugo’s humongous novel but I was still excited to see this film. Why? Well I am a fan of movies and had heard this was a great one, i am also a fan of musicals and thus think of movie musicals as all the better. Why? War is such a potent place to set a drama because it exacerbates the existential issues that we face everyday into a more palatable plot of time – it is life and death and love and hate, all right there and without pause. Musicals do something similar, though they do it via a contrivance; rather than squeezing these strong emotions out of characters with the natural pressures of conflict they perform a caesarean of sorts, cutting the characters open to reveal what lies inside. Les Mis isn’t just a movie-musical but one set during wartime, so it should be the epitome of emotion and yet it rarely move me. Why? Because none of those terms that I just described it with are true.
Firstly Les Miserables isn’t really a musical, the use of that term is an oversimplification of its style. See, characters don’t simply burst into song mid-scene as a way of extravagantly expressing a point. No, there is certainly a lot of singing going on throughout its near three hour run-time, but not much in the way of songs. Instead the characters are just constantly singing, singing every scripted line and every sensitive thought. The other oft-seen tenet of a musical is the majestic set-piece in which the stage breaks away and the cast of extras all break into an accompanying dance number, this convention too goes mostly unfulfilled. There are some semi-staged sequences accompanying the few, scattered songs within the picture but these tend to stand out as strange exceptions and never quite snap the stories reality.
Strangest of all is the fact that this approach, rather than exaggerating the contrivance of the story actually lessens it; instead of being slapped by shock with the opening string of each song you are asked to suspend disbelief only once and once you have it is only the occasional spoken line that startles you ( Though it could be argued that the speaking stressed a line in the same way that singing would elsewhere I feel that including these was a mistake). Why is this important? Well because unlike the majority of musicals – movie or otherwise – Les Mis is attempting to be something larger than sheer spectacle, it strains for seriousness through its raising of issues and its complexity of character and something gaudy like a traditional show tune would have compromised this vision as would any extra cracks in the facade. None of that though is specific to this version of Les Mis, the one seen on the screen; what Tom Hooper does during the adaption process though works to further these facets of the original production.
Whereas most movie-musicals that are made attempt to capture the awe and sublimity inherent in the size of the original stage-show this film does the opposite; instead of making use of the now unrestricted visual canvas that the characters cavort on and expanding the world it actually tells the tale on a much smaller scale ( bringing it in with a much smaller budget to boot. In terms of BO there is no way this won’t be a big hit). Hooper uses his camera to show what a stageshow cannot, constantly shooting from close-up to the actors faces – the songs are often seen as simple talking heads against a shadowy background – and this allows the all-star cast that he has assembled to put the focus on what it is that first got them into film: acting, not singing.
Though to my ear the cast all do a more than competent job of their numbers – even ToFoG’s Russel Crowe – the natural style that they bring to the singing – their vocals were recorded on set, fresh with each take and not, per usual, as a master in some studio after the fact – means that the audio alone is rarely amazing; especially when compiled with the fact that what they sing is oft-unstructured and short. The work that the actors do though – their facial expressions, the telling falters in their falsetto, etc. – is often awesome and always elevates what they are delivering. When these two elements come together some show-stopping moments are delivered: Hathaway’s rendition of Dream, for example, puts Susan Boyle to shame; her bruised, battered and dirt-browned face breaks what pieces of your heart that had somehow survived the words she was singing.
Strong songs like this though are sparsely scattered throughout the story, which is itself quite sparsely scattered. Les Mis is not really a movie either but a tenuously tied together trilogy unto itself: loose, flabby and largely irrelevant to what has come before. Though no literal remnants of it remain you can see in the structure of the script the staged nature of this tale; there are obvious act breaks built into the story and the scenery only shifts occasionally within each of these, we are still stuck spending chunks of time either here or there.
In comparison the editing of the film is disproportionately flustered, flickering from short shot to short shot with almost no attention span ( an issue both explained and exacerbated by the film’s tit focus*) and thus the scenes lose the sense of space and layout that is usually uniquely present in a stage-show. Gone too is the natural flow of either a film or a stage-show: inter-cutting choruses and returning to refrains requires an openness to work and a traditionally written scene a different kind of rhythm all together. Hooper is perhaps attempting to imitate the human eye with this technique, following where it would likely focus were we watching the scene on a stage but for me where to look should be the choice of the one watching.
(* This was a Freudian typo, I meant to type “tight” but have left it this way because based on the angles and outfits employed for most of the film’s female characters Hooper also has this all to human trait.)
Though it seemed as if he was trying to condense and concentrate the initial ideas of the original opera for me Hooper here has actually compromised them somewhat making a film that definitely isn’t a straight movie, but isn’t quite a musical either; it’s at times big in its intellectual inspirations and at others broad and base in its execution; it’s massive and minute, majestic and mundane, salted with spilt blood and sugary with the beating of hearts. In trying to make itself everything and for everyone it only makes itself a mess, each individual element of which may be brilliant ( any acting nominations are sorely deserved) but the complete collection of which is a bitter disappointment. Les Mis is something I should love and yet I left the theater miserable myself, still thinking of myself as a man who is not a fan of Les Miserables.