For fans of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s musical Les Miserables
, the most recent film adaption by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech
) offers an unprecedented intimacy with its characters. Hooper liberally uses wide-angle closeups with shallow depth of field to keep focus on his actors' faces as they perform their songs, captured live with orchestra added later. This could prove thrilling to those previously confined to seats far from the stage, but otherwise provides a static, monotonous movie-going experience.
Having ditched his parole requirements, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman
) reinvents himself as respectable businessman and mayor. He's become one of the elusive job creators so lauded by the campaigns during our country's last election season. But when one of his factory girls, Fantine (Anne Hathaway
), ruthlessly fired by a foreman, becomes a pitiable working girl and dies from exposure—or maybe it's consumption—Valjean vows to take care of her daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen).
Valjean saves Cosette from the greedy clutches of the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), while being mercilessly hunted by his former jailer Javert (Russell Crowe). The two find sanctuary with nuns, and are only discovered years later by Javert when Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried) falls for student revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is the object of affection of Éponine (Samantha Barks), the daughter of the Thénardiers.
A sung-through musical with English-language libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, <<I>a href="http://movies.about.com/od/lesmiserables/">Les Misérables is big on tell and short on show. The lyrics are mostly exposition. The characters sing background, motive and action. They constantly emote. The constant singing is a form of emotional shorthand, so the level of believabilty depends largely on audience buy-in. If you're not into it or following along, it's a chore.
Some of the actors are better than others at this type of performance. Hugh Jackman's nasal voice registers as reedy and thin, and his constantly furrowed brow is too stagy for the extreme closeups. Although only briefly on screen, Anne Hathaway brings a refreshing honesty to the film. Her strong voice coupled with her vulnerable performance add a needed internal dramatic tension. Russell Crowe does a good turn as baddie Javert. His gruff voice helps to illustrate his character's unbudging philosophy about the unchanging nature of humans. Samantha Barks as the impossibly small-waisted Éponine also gives a standout performance though her part is not very big.
Much has been made of the comic relief provided by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the opportunistic innkeepers. Although their introductory scene is the closest thing to an actual musical number in the film, it brings a levity that's inconsistent with the rest of the film. In addition, the costumes and performances are too similar to those in 2007's Sweeney Todd.
Hooper's move to keep most of the film in closeup is disappointing. Costume, set design, and even the brief shots containing sweeping CGI could have been highlighted to great effect. This adaptation had the potential for epic spectacle. The final scene proves the filmmakers had the resources for sweeping shots of multitudes of extras. Instead, its point of view is treacly and restrictive. An honest comparison can be made to Tom Stoppard's stagy adaptation of Anna Karenina
this year. Where Hooper diminishes a sweeping story by closing in on it, Stoppard enhances one by cleverly framing it on an actual stage. Extras act as partygoers and workers as well as stagehands. The rules of Russian society is outed as artifice. The result is artistic and interesting and not at all confining to the viewer.