It’s a tricky proposition trying to bring something designed to be viewed as one large panorama to a medium that allows the focus to be placed as close or as far as the director desires. Stay too far back, and you end up with essentially a filmed version of a stage show, losing the intimacy and detail a film can provide. But get too close, and you don’t have the sweep and grandeur that such a big part of the theatrical experience. You have to find a balance, knowing when to take advantage and bring us in close, and when to step back and let the scene unfurl. And the biggest problem with Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Les Misérables is that he never does find that balance.
Sometimes, he absolutely nails it. The grand opening shot, sweeping in over the shipyard where Jean Valjean is imprisoned as the bombastic opening notes of “Look Down” roar away, is a great introduction. He wisely lets the camera just sit on Anne Hathaway as she emotes her way to an almost certain Best Supporting Actress Oscar with “I Dreamed a Dream.” The song is about her pain, her despair, and we don’t need to see anything but that anguished face (in fact, Fantine’s entire story is an almost perfect mini-movie dropped into the middle of Les Misérables). “Do You Hear the People Sing,” now moved to later in the story where it serves as an actual rallying cry for the people to rise up, effectively manages to mix both the small and the big, giving the scene a sense of chaotic fervor. Moments like these are truly cinematic, perfect examples of how to bring the stage to the screen.
But then he so often drops the ball, particularly when it comes to what the musical is most known for: those moments when one character is singing while another sings a counterpoint in the background. Instead of giving us a sense of emotional geography by having both characters in the same shot, he all too often cuts back and forth between them. So instead of Marius’ giddy love being directly countered by Eponine looking on in heartbreak, it’s as if the characters are inhabiting two different scenes. The same is true with “A Heart Full of Love,” where Marius and Cosette declare their undying love while barely appearing on screen at the same time. And Hooper maddeningly cuts like crazy during crowd songs like “At the End of the Day” and “Master of the House,” never letting it really feel like a crowd is singing, breaking everything down to quick individual moments that never build any momentum. “Master of the House” particularly suffers from this; for the most rousing song in the show, it’s frustratingly low-key here, with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter far too subtle with their humor for the two boisterous Thenardiers.
The worst transgression comes during the staging of Valjean’s signature song, “Bring Him Home.” On the stage, this song takes place as Valjean looks down at the sleeping Marius and realizes that, despite it meaning he’ll likely lose Cosette, he wants this young man to escape the barricade, praying to God to “let him live.” Yet Hooper films it so that Hugh Jackman and Eddie Redmayne aren’t even in the scene together until the final note. Like large parts of the film, it makes the characters seem isolated from the story, and turns a character-driven song into a mere showtune, with none of its emotional impact.
Beyond how he shot the film, Hooper makes some other odd choices. Songs are trimmed or eliminated entirely with no real reason, save to wedge in the redundant and uninspiring new song, “Suddenly,” which treats us to three minutes of Valjean riding in a carriage singing about how much his life has changed now that he’s adopted Cosette. There’s also a bizarre escape sequence as Valjean and Cosette essentially break into Paris. I wouldn’t mind these changes so much if it wasn’t for what appears to have been sacrificed to them. We lose the evocative ending of “Confrontation,” as Valjean swears to find Cosette while Javert vows to never stop hunting him. “Dog Eat Dog” is eliminated almost entirely, resulting in Thenardier just magically appearing in the sewers. The intro to “On My Own” has been cut, which makes the transition into it feel rushed, as if the film just can’t wait to get to another popular song. Worst of all, instead of Javert simply falling into the river (a scene given a sort of eloquence on stage by the realities of theatrical staging), we see Russell Crowe slam into a concrete breakwater with a jarring cracking sound, then watch the body float away over the falls. It’s an instance where just because film allows you to show something doesn’t mean you should, and turns one of the most poignant moments in the film into an unintentionally comic one.
Javert is a weak link overall, mostly due to Crowe. He’s fine when he has to act, but you can see every ounce of effort in him trying to hit the notes in his songs. He comes across more as a musical instrument performing notes rather than a singer giving a performance, and what should be an emotionally complex character comes across more as simply a necessary part of the plot. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette is pretty much cipher here, her bland prettiness and her ordinary singing voice making an already slight character seem like a blip. Everyone else fares much better, with Jackman, Hathaway and Redmayne the clear standouts. Redmayne in particular wrings every ounce of regret and sadness from “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” another moment where the Hooper who seems to know what he’s doing appears and lets the scene just stay with the character.
And in the end, that’s ultimately the most frustrating thing about Les Misérables. Every once in a while, Hooper manages to capture what’s made the stage show such a beloved institution, and the film absolutely comes to life. There’s an awful lot of good work here. The problem is, most of it is followed almost immediately by a misstep, a missed opportunity, a poor decision. Your emotions soar, only to be dragged back down to earth by the film’s disappointing inconsistency.