From the page to the stage to the screen, it’s been quite the journey for Les Misérables. Once Victor Hugo’s novel, then Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical, and now Tom Hooper’s movie, the beloved tale of lives in the gutters of 19th century France hits the big screen in musical form looking, well, almost identical to the stage version. Apparently this was one adaptation effort too many. And apparently Tom Hooper temporarily forgot that the sets and makeup were being designed for a camera and not for the back row of a stage theatre. It’s the only explanation for how garish and awful a visual experience this version of Les Misérables provides. Keeping the sung-through style of all singing all the time almost intact means that Hooper’s movie still sounds great, but it looks like a decrepit theme park gone laughably awry.
Since the music and the majority of the script are already done and such an adaptation as this needs to justify its stage-to-screen transformation, there’s no bigger or better space to find its own identity than in the visual language of the picture. So while being able to comfortably enjoy the melodious sounds of the famous tunes once more is still an enjoyable experience, it feels like such an automatically integrated pleasure that little credit can go to Hooper for anything other than the bold decision to record live vocals on set as opposed to having the actors dub their lip synched performances in post-production like most musical movies. That decision remains a fine call on Hooper’s part, as it gives the various performances the space to breathe on screen. But too bad Hooper’s camera just as quickly suffocates that space with cramped compositions that make the nearly three hour running time a stifling bore.
Using close-ups to capture emotion and action in the vast majority of the shots, Hooper completely discards any sensible or even abstractly communicable form of cinematic language and instead turns nearly every scene into an entirely hideous display of misconceived framing. Even an action as simple as a character entering a room becomes a confusing stumble marred additionally by odd editing choices. Actual action sequences involving scuffles between characters are even more disastrous, clumsily cobbling together images of movement into a sloppy blur.
Watching this all unfold over such a long period of screen time (and without the stage version’s apparently necessary intermission) is a chore under Hooper’s direction. Having enjoyed the stage version quite immensely both times I’ve seen it, I figure there’s a way to get this tale to the screen without losing nearly all of its magic along the way, but shoving the camera in every actor’s face is certainly not the way to accomplish such a feat. Letting the makeup team run rampant with ridiculous alterations that appear painfully shoddy when shot at such tight angles is another clear mistake that contributes to the overall ugliness of Les Misérables. Sure, some of the characters and situations call for some grimy prosthetics or gaudy colors, but Hooper’s team takes it too far, swapping effective subtlety for showy theatricality.
In the briefest of moments that Hooper pulls the camera away from an actor’s face, thus sparing us the sight of the low caliber makeup work for a moment, the screen is usually filled with some cheap CGI in a disconcerting attempt to cinematically depict the immensity of a situation that could not be fully executed on stage. When the movie opens and we first meet story hero Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), the grizzled prisoner is one of many men pulling a massive ship onto a dry dock with nothing but rope and pure strength. It’s a moment of spectacle captured in a manner that is unique to cinema, but the scene still suffers from hokey digital effects that denigrate the imagery. Other rare moments of the camera being pulled back suffer from blatant green screen work and lazy bird’s-eye view shots of Paris streets painted with pixels.
Occasionally, the strength of the music breaks through Hooper’s wall of bad camera work to actually strike a chord. The songs can still stir at times and never better than during Anne Hathaway’s passionate belting of the signature song “I Dreamed a Dream.” It’s a touching scene and perhaps the one time that Hooper’s otherwise vapid framing works in an actor’s favor. Pushing Hathaway’s Fantine into one corner of the screen, isolating her, and letting her be nearly swallowed up by the surrounding darkness is actually a visual touch that the emotional scene can use. But then the technique of pushing actors against the edge of a frame is eventually overused and Hooper’s lack of visual imagination leads to lamely recycled compositions.
It seems that beyond casting the movie (Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried also star) and opting for live vocals, Hooper can’t get anything else right. His penchant for capturing every longing look, every tear, every cry with his full frame only serves to further sentimentalize the experience and his love of Dutch angles is on full comical display here. The camera is tilted so often and with so little reason that I almost expected to see the actors start slipping on the sets. It’s all so silly and this inanity undercuts the drama. The songs still sound lovely, of course, but while this Les Misérables may be music to the ears, it’s also an achingly abysmal assault on the eyes.