Les Misérables Doesn't Dream Daringly

The Follies of 1832

You can hear the people sing—really hear them—in the long-gestating screen version of that Broadway juggernaut Les Misérables. Countering the standard practice of having the actors in a film musical lip-synch their songs to prerecorded tracks (a/k/a "playback"), director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) insisted that all of the singing in his Les Mis happen live on the set, in the moment, with hidden earpieces allowing the actors to hear the orchestrations. The result is a movie musical unlike any you've heard before: Real voices emerge in real time, complete with assorted tremors, gasps for breath and other "imperfections" of the sort typically smoothed away in the studio. The quality of the sound recording is exceptional, too, as crisp as in the best concert films and live albums. Inevitably, you wonder what the likes of My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and The King and I would have sounded like if they'd been made this way, and without the reassuring soprano of Marni Nixon emanating from their leading ladies.

The live singing is but one part of Hooper's concerted effort to inject grit and verisimilitude into Les Mis—a lofty strategy that has become folly by late in the film, when the proletarian hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) sloshes through the sewers of Paris with the body of the wounded revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne) slung across his mighty shoulders, both men caked in human excrement. For the more Hooper tries—and oh, how he tries, ratcheting the filth amp to 11 and shooting almost everything with an arsenal of wide-angled, handheld cameras—the more the moist-eyed storybook romanticism of the source material proves resistant to his efforts.

It's doubtful, after all, that realism—or any semblance of it—is what audiences were seeking when they turned British über-producer Cameron Mackintosh's 1985 stage production into one of the biggest of all musical-theater blockbusters. Liberally inspired by Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, Les Misérables, the musical first entered the world as a French-language concept album by composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg—and a concept album it very much remains. Hugo's panoramic study of the underclasses between the end of the French Revolution and the failed Paris uprisings of 1832 is here boiled down to a series of noble peasant heroes, cardboard villains, and star-crossed lovers belting out sound-alike anthems about the resilience of the human spirit. Developed by Mackintosh into a full-scale English-language production that premiered on London's West End in 1985 (where it is still running), Les Mis arrived in New York two years later, on the heels of the Mackintosh-produced Cats and just ahead of his Phantom of the Opera—the "British Invasion" trifecta that, at a low ebb for original American musicals, revitalized Broadway as a tourist mecca.

On stage, Les Mis has about as much to do with Hugo as Rent has to do with Puccini, but it has undeniable kitsch appeal, with its own literal pièce de résistance—an enormous rotating barricade—in lieu of Phantom's plummeting chandelier. On screen, there are fewer pleasures, though the opening moments are undeniably impressive in an old-fashioned, epic-monolithic way, as the camera drifts up from underwater to reveal Valjean and a chain gang of prisoners hauling an enormous ship into port under the crash of waves and the glower of the police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). Later, when a paroled Valjean jumps bail and flees through a snow-capped mountain expanse (actually Gourdon, in the South of France), the film exudes a wide-open physical grandeur not often seen in musicals—save for the few, like Fiddler on the Roof, shot on real locations instead of studio sets. There are a handful of other show-stopping moments along the way, though I'm not sure if the most discussed of them—Anne Hathaway's rendition of the tortured ballad "I Dreamed a Dream"—stops the show for the right reasons. The impassioned lament of Fantine, a fired factory worker forced into prostitution to support her illegitimate daughter, "I Dreamed a Dream" is already emotional pornography of the first order, made more so by Hathaway's borderline hysterical interpretation, all bulging eyes and hyperventilation, as if Hooper were shouting "More! More!" into her earpiece. Is this realism or the precursor to spontaneous combustion?

Yet it's hard to place too much fault on the direction of a movie that feels less like an exercise in filmmaking than in careful brand management. Once upon a time, directors entrusted with bringing some popular work of theater or literature to the screen were allowed to be creative, to reshape and adapt as they saw fit. And the audiences that lined up for Cabaret and The Godfather and The Exorcist instinctively understood that they wouldn't be seeing a scene-for-scene, page-for-page translation of the source.

But in today's Hollywood, where "pre-awareness" reigns supreme and the rights-holders of underlying properties retain ever more say in the adaptation process, writers and directors are increasingly reduced to the level of corporate lackeys. Occasionally, a filmmaker will still be given major leeway to reinvent a well-known character or franchise (as Christopher Nolan was for his Batman films), but more often—whether it's Twilight or The Hunger Games or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—the clear mandate is to cater to the base, and Les Mis is no exception. Try as Hooper might to make the movie his own, the only real changes he has been allowed are cosmetic and stylistic, and even smeared in shit, Boublil and Schönberg's gleaming icons cannot be dulled. The dream lives, but this movie remains in chains.

sfoundas@villagevoice.com
 
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10 comments
ur1336
ur1336

"I'm not sure where the critic's heart was while watching the movie."

I know where it was.

It was straight up his own ass. His whole review is falling over itself with glee, as he anticipates being able to use "smeared with shit"in his second last line. I can almost see his smirk as he slaps his enter key in triumph after the last word is typed in.


missywatts63
missywatts63

I saw it today and was mesmerized. I much preferred it over Lincoln which I took one or two quick naps through the beginning. I then concentrated on Daniel Day Lewis' disappearance into "Lincoln" as I was sure he would do. Nothing you can say can make me change my opinion of how great it was. I was amazed at Hugh Jackman's transformation in Jean Valjean and pleasantly surprised at Russell Crowe's performance. Was it perfect? No nothing is; not even 'Lincoln', but my eyes saw all the emotions of the characters and their hearts breaking and I felt it in my heart as well.. I'm not sure where the critic's heart was while watching the movie.


lotsoftechnique
lotsoftechnique

But why does Mr. Foundas want the icons dulled?  Hugo didn't.

I think it's Mr. Foundas who could use some dreams (especially if he thinks the manipulative jolts of "The Exorcist" represent movie-making's good old days).  

"Les Miz" is about revolutionary idealism.  That's why Hugo told the story in the first place.  

In fact the actual 1832 student uprising was buried in French history because its call to action was such a dud: the students couldn't rally the populace and were indeed mowed down. End of story. Yet Hugo chose this "failure" as a focus for his novel. Why would he do that? Because failure can be the most potent example and goad to the kind of thought and action that uproot and transform.

These filmmakers have tried to summon some of that bristling spirit.  And Hathaway's performance summarizes it:  Fantine represents the damage society is doing every day; a less than a full-bore cri de cour from Hathaway would have dulled the story's raison d'etre.  

I think we could use more movie-making that attempts too much and risks going wrong.  And Mr. Foundas is right to point out that some of Hooper's work doesn't gel; all this seething emotion needed crisper compositions, with a gliding camera working against the (too numerous) close-ups.  Put another way, this very French story needed to be a bit more English in its telling: more logic and a bit less palpitating emotion behind the camera.

Yet overall here's a big-budget movie musical brimming with emotion that can, if you listen to it, also make you think. Quel surprise. Yet for Mr. Foundas, quel dommage!  Talk about counterrevolutionaries!

rudy20
rudy20

Why do reviewers think it's so cool to smack Anne Hathaway around for being absolutely terrific?

Binkconn
Binkconn

Why did Hooper plant the camera a foot away from the actors' faces the entire movie? It was just crowding them, destroying any chance of dramatic build. The cinematographer looks like he hasn't taken a 101 course in basic composition. Dreadful.

jack
jack

Thanks for giving away a major plot point in your review, asshole! Why do snarky Voice critics constantly pull that shit? 

aselene44
aselene44

Did I just read a review by a purportedly professional critic attacking Les Miserable for being melodramatic and unrealistic? 

Here's a hint: it's a f***ing musical.

Binkconn
Binkconn

@rudy20 Because she hyperventilates for one Oscar-bait scene then vanishes, leaving everyone else to do the heavy-lifting?

ur1336
ur1336

@jack because they work for the Voice. Gotta have the chip on your shoulder.

 

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