The Attack of The Singing Face: My Love/Hate Review of Les Miserables

There are some things that are best left alone, and it’s very possible that Les Miserables should’ve been one of them.  From the Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech comes Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Miserables, the ever popular and musical sensation that is as ever polarizing and difficult to rate as any other film I’ve witness.  This review will be broken up into two parts, why I loved it, and why I hated.  Hopefully by the end of this review, I’ve reached my conclusion and rating of Les Mis.  I am truly “On My Own”….

Why I loved Les Miserables.

Well, if you know me personally, I proclaim Les Miserables as the greatest musical of all time.  The plot is complex, confusing and very assumptive, but the music is gorgeous, beautiful and completely unmatched.  I have absolutely no connection to the French Revolution or with the characters, but when I hear them sing, it’s an emotional experience that cannot be compared with any other production I’ve seen on screen.  This biased opinion of the stage production is the main reason why I love the film.  Okay, I’m being overdramatic when I say love and hate (haven’t gotten to the hate portion yet).  I didn’t really love the film, but I really wanted to, mainly because I love the Broadway musical.

And just because I loved the stage version so much, I can say I like this film too.  It has way too many failures and mistakes to even put it near the stage version, but it’s good enough.  I loved witnessing the grand scope of the film, setting us in a believable atmosphere that compares to the French Revolution.  The opening scene where we are introduced to Jean Valjean, Javert and the ever so talented group of prisoners pulling in a damaged ship is the beauty of transitioning a musical to the big screen.  Big sets, special effects and an actual legitimate budget allows for our imagination to be put in actuality, allowing us to fully dive into the world of the musical.  This is where the film truly succeeds.  The world fits, and the set design is at its best.  The world Tom Hooper and his crew created is top-notch quality work.  As you can see, I’m trying to find things to praise…

In all honesty, the cast here is mostly good if not great.  Hugh Jackman, though I have my issues, was perfect for Jean Valjean.  I can’t think of any actor working today that can carry this role.  The vocal range and talent, the physique, the Broadway background.  Hugh Jackman was born to play Valjean, and we witness this on screen through song after song.  The rest of the cast does its part, especially Eddie Redmayne as Marius, Samantha Barks as Eponine and Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.  But who really shines is Anne Hatheway.  Completely deserving of Oscar praise, Hatheway plays Fantine the way it’s supposed to and more so.  Her version of “I Dreamed A Dream” is as good as it gets, and her emotional pull in her performance was the ultimate climax.  Unfortunately, “I Dreamed A Dream” is sung in the first 45 minutes…

Why I Hated Les Miserables.

Yes, I’m being overdramatic (just like Hugh Jackman’s acting), but there are just some aspects of this film I just couldn’t forgive or let go.  Much of it is the impossibility of transferring Les Mis from stage to screen.  There’s a reason why there’s never been a film adaptation of the musical.  It’s too difficult, as what works for Les Mis on stage doesn’t work on film.  The audience needs a break.  Heck, even the theater audience gets an intermission.  We get 2 hours and 30 minutes of non-stop sing and song, where the rare dialogue is like needed oxygen for a drowning man.

Why it works on Broadway is mainly because we witness the music live.  There’s a huge difference experiencing an actor singing “On My Own” or “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” live on stage than seeing it on screen.  And instead of trying to find a solution for this, Hooper decides to connect the audience emotionally by delivering close up after close up on the musical numbers, giving us this trapped and suffocating experience where I feel like the movie theater has increased my fear of claustrophobia (I don’t suffer from claustrophobia…).

I don’t think Tom Hooper understood what you can get away with on stage and what you can get away with on screen.  The plot of Les Miserables is ridiculous and extremely ignorant.  Characters fall in love for no reason, Jean Valjean keeps escaping Javert point blank and individuals are stupid at best.  But it works on stage.  We give them the benefit of the doubt because we’re not there to criticize or not-pick at these flaws or shortcomings because we go to a musical to witness the music.  The problem with film is that though the music is the most important aspect, it’s not the only one.  You need a working plot, you need some sort of character development, you need actual substance.  Great singing just isn’t enough to save a film.

There’s the other problem with Les Miserables (the film version).  Tom Hooper did something revolutionary.  He created the first film to ever record the actors singing live while being shot on film.  The actors wore an earpiece with just a piano accompaniment, giving them the freedom to sing live with change of pace, emotion, and variation.  Sounds great right?  But here’s the problem: you’ve created an editing nightmare.

The main reason why we’re given so many damn close up performances is because you cannot integrate multiple angles because the actor or actress changed the song in his or her preference each take.  They had the freedom to do something different every time, so there’s no possibility of recording the same performance or getting anywhere near the consistency of one version when you’re doing it live.  That means we’re stuck with this three-minute song watching Russell Crowe sing one continuous note.  Instead of giving the audience a change of scenery or angle, we’re completely stuck, and though that works on stage, it is miserable (no pun intended) for film.  The character development, the struggle and difficulties of these characters are shared in song, but instead of connecting with their musical processing, we’re focused on this giant face.  When I truly fell in love with the film is when the ensemble is singing together and Hooper is allowed the freedom to gracefully cut and interact multiple scenes together.  It’s wonderful and gives us that “grand” scope musicals cannot.  But if you know Les Mis, there are not many of those.

90% of the film’s flaws fall under a predicament that can’t be solved, and I don’t necessarily blame Hooper for this.  You can’t do the traditional lip-synching other film musicals have done with Les Miserables.  The story isn’t good enough for that.  The heart is in the music.  But when they decided to do live recording, it ultimately decided and unfortunately limited the film to what it was: a masterful effort with mediocre result.

There are some things that Hooper could’ve done like the overacting, the laughable cuts of Jackman’s sudden singing or the confusing use of real dialogue and singing dialogue, but in the end, the choice to adapt Les Miserables on screen was the biggest mistake.  This film, though succeeds in some aspects, is tiring, enduring and eventually exhausting to watch.  Unlike my standing ovation for the theater production, I needed a blanket and a nap as the credits rolled.  The music will live on, but the film will unfortunately be forgotten.

Les Miserables gets 2 ½ stars (out of 5).

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