"Les Miserables" - Tom Hooper (2012)

A few moments of grace can profoundly change one's life, making the entire world look different. This is perhaps the key theme of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Misérables (1862), that came across in the subsequent musical stage play and film. Hugo’s original novel ran to some 1,500 pages and can almost be considered to be five novels rolled into one, with numerous subplots interspersed with serious political commentary and philosophical digressions about the life and society of his day. More than a century later, a French musical stage play that managed to incorporate the main plot elements of the novel was somehow concocted out of all this material.  But this musical’s initial 1980 run was only three months.  However, the English language version of the musical that opened in London five years later turned out to be an enormous success and became one of the longest running stage plays in history.  Now the British film version of this musical, directed by Tom Hooper, has also been a huge success and has been nominated for eight US Academy Awards (“Oscars”). 

In view of this artistic lineage, the film could be (and has been) critiqued from many angles.  We have here a sequence of attempts to translate an artistic vision into another medium:
“reality” ➔ novel ➔ French musical ➔ English musical ➔ film

Anywhere along the line, a critic might complain that the artistic translation was not faithful to the “original” on which it is based.  Of course, any deviations from the original could represent improvements, but such alterations are unlikely to satisfy the loyal fan base of the original work. Anyway, I only mention this in passing, and I primarily look here at the film as it stands, by itself, and am not concerned with the degree to which it is a faithful translation of something else.  This point is still worth mentioning, because a number of critics have complained about XX’s performance as being different from what they had seen on the stage. I am not concerned about that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter whether some virtues or faults in Hooper’s film are due to something on which this film is based.  We will just look at the film as it is.

In terms of the story, we would expect that with such an epic novel, there would be a number of narrative strands.  But when looking at the film as a whole, there are really three main narrative themes that are interleaved in the film:
  • Jean Valjean’s story
  • Marius and Cosette
  • The Revolutionaries

Jean Valjean’s story
This is the encompassing narrative, in the context of which the others can be said to embedded.  At the beginning of the story in 1815, Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years for having stolen a loaf of bread (and also for some unruly behaviour in prison).   At this point we are also introduced to officer Javert, an upright prison guard who will be Valjean’s implacable foe.  When Valjean is released, he is placed on lifetime parole.  If he ever commits another crime or breaks parole, he will be returned to prison for a life sentence.

Once on the outside Valjean finds life hard going; noone will hire him for work, because his personal documents (his “internal passport”) show he has a prison record.  He finally finds shelter in a Catholic church; but upon leaving the next morning, the now embittered Valjean takes the opportunity to steal two silver candlesticks. Valjean is quickly apprehended by the police, but the Catholic bishop Myriel, in a pure act of altruism, invents a story that he had given the candlesticks to his guest. Valjean, used to the brutality of prison life, is shocked by the bishop’s kindness and mercy; and over time he becomes a changed man.

The film fast forwards to 1823 where, astonishingly, Valjean has become a successful business man and mayor of a small town.  Equally astonishing, the police chief of this town turns out to be Javert, who apparently doesn’t recognize that the mayor was once one of his prisoners and is therefore a parole-breaker.  A young woman working in his factory, Fantine, is an unwed mother of a young girl, Cosette.  Fantine works hard at the factory to pay for Cosette’s being cared for by another family, the Thenardiers, who greedily mistreat Cosette and overcharge Fantine for the upkeep.  It soon comes to pass that the unlucky Fantine is unjustly fired from Valjean’s factory, put in prison (by Javert), and becomes terminally ill.  As she lies dying in the hospital, she asks Valjean to look after Cosette, and he solemnly vows to do so.

For the rest of the film, the Valjean story pits the compassionate Valjean against the moralistic Javert.  It is a metaphorical case of situational ethics matched up against a strict legalistic interpretation of how society should be governed.

Marius and Cosette
The film now jumps to 1832, and Valjean has moved to Paris with Cosette, who is now a beautiful young woman. She encounters a young student, Marius, who is active in the revolutionary movement, and it is love at first sight.  This thread of the film concerns their love affair. It is embellished by the presence of another young woman, Eponine, who happens to be the grown child of the Thenardiers and whose love for Marius is unrequited.

The Revolutionaries
Marius is a member of a group of student revolutionaries led by another student, Enjolras.  Also joining this group are Eponine and her younger brother, Gavroche.  This thread, which is the weakest in the film, concerns the conflicts Marius feels between his idealistic loyalties towards the goals of the revolution and his amorous feelings for Cosette.  Eventually, the revolt is called, and the students set up barricades on the Paris streets, hoping for a mass uprising.  Their hopes are dashed, however, and all of them are killed by French troops (led by Javert), except, Marius, who is rescued by Valjean.

By the end of Les Misérables, although Marius and Cosette live on, most of the principal characters have been killed off, including Valjean, Javert, Fantine, Enjolras, Eponine, and Gavroche. So there is a lot of anguish expressed in the story, and it is presented in expressionistic extreme – almost all of the scenes are exaggerated and almost outlandishly over-the-top.  There are all sorts of incongruities that I won’t go into, such as the numerous escapes that Valjean makes from Javert’s clutches throughout.  Your enjoyment of the film will depend on the degree to which you can buy into this kind of fare.  Personally, I had mixed feelings.

On the positive side, there is the music.  It is not as though the songs are all that memorable, but this is a sung-through musical (no spoken lines) and that maintains a kind of lyrical tint to the whole film.  And there are a lot of songs – over fifty of them by my reckoning. My favourites are all the ones involving Samantha Barks, who plays Éponine.  Even though the role of Éponine is a relatively minor one in the grand scheme of the film, Ms. Barks’s performance was so compelling (even with her incongruously manicured eyebrows) that it almost all by itself made the movie for me.

Also positive were many of the acting performances. Hugh Jackman, as Valjean, is not as brawny as that character is supposed to be, but his performance sustains the entire film. He has  the kind of masculine compassion that works perfectly for this role. Russell Crowe is effective as the grimly dedicated Javert, and Anne Hathaway, in the role of Fantine, elevates the film when she is in focus.  And, as I mentioned, Samantha Barks was particularly good in the role of Éponine. Unfortunately, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, who play the buffoonish Thenardiers, did not come across for me.  I have enjoyed both of them in other films, but on this occasion, their presentations of comic relief were unsuccessful.

But there are also negative aspects of the film that in fact ruin one’s enjoyment.  The main problem is the cinematography, which of course means that the principal fault here is with the film, not with its musical forebear.  This isn’t the first time I have had a problem with Hooper’s work on this score (see The King’s Speech). 
  • The use of hand-held cameras with telephoto lens just doesn’t work.  It results in very unsteady framing that is continually irritating.  This problem is accentuated by the nervous swish-pans that are frequently employed.  The use of a telephoto lens, with its short depth of field, to pick out and isolate the in-focus subject from the blurred background was used effectively by Michaelangelo Antonioni in other contexts, but it is completely misguided here.
  • Similarly, the backward-moving tracking shots (the camera facing the actor moves backward as the actor moves forward) are also disconcerting.  You lose all of the environmental context by doing this.  Presumably Hooper was looking to energise the frame, but these tracking shots here only defeat his purpose.
  • The in-your-face closeups, particularly during the arias, were also a bad decision.  When one watches a person belting out a song, but in extreme closeup, one is distracted by the physicality of the singer.  This completely subverts the music-hall style for which these songs were meant, where a seated audience would be watching performers at a distance on stage projecting their voices.  When the camera is brought in so close to the performer, it should be for a more intimate interaction.  This is particularly noticeable in Anne Hathaway’s solos, which are ruined by the crowding of the close-in camera.  Hooper cannot even fall back on a claim that these closeups were a mistaken pre-production decision.  He has remarked that the decision to go with the tight close-ups was made in the editing room [1].
  • When I saw the film (at a first-run theatre), the picture frames appeared to be cropped on the top.  This was so bad that sometimes the frame did not even take in the principal actor’s eyes – they were just off screen.  I cannot believe that the cameramen would frame a scene like this, so I assume that this problem was associated with post-production or projection.
  • The decision to do live on-set (as opposed to dubbed) sound recording had mixed results.  It was not effective for some of the songs, particularly in the “Master of the House” piece with the Thenardiers, where the lyric articulation was unclear, both for the chorus and for the solo singing.
Anyway, the performances of Hugh Jackman and Samantha Barks almost made up for these deficiencies.  They generally managed to convey the lyrical thought of Hugo’s that is the film’s ultimate message:
“To love another person is to see the face of god.”

  1. Frank DiGiacomo, The Movieline Review, 12 December 2012, http://movieline.com/2012/12/25/tom-hooper-interview-les-miserables-defends-close-ups/

No comments: