Let me say this, before I get into this review: I really like Les Miserables as a musical. For all the bombast and drama it brings, it fits the source material perfectly (indeed, having read the book recently, it’s kind of a joy to find out how faithfully and strongly the musical interprets not only the plot of the book, but also its spirit). More to the point, the music is genuinely great; with motifs for characters, beautifully constructed melodies, and all kinds of showcases that manage to bring both drama and emotion to bear, it’s hard to have too many major faults. (Okay, I think it slows a bit in the midst of the Eponine/Marius/Cosette section, but that’s sort of to be expected, and more of an issue with me than the material.)
Your feelings on the film, then, can’t help but be shaped by your appreciation of the musical. For all the film’s faults – and there are plenty – it’s hard to deny the power of the music, or how well the story can sweep you along, or how successfully the songs can capture you whether you want them to or not. And even as I’m frustrated with so many of the filmmaking choices that got made in the film, I can’t deny that the story and the songs still work for me.
But, oh, those choices. I’m not a fan of Tom Hooper, whose King’s Speech was saved by great performances and nearly destroyed by awful camerawork (and a mediocre script), and he brings that same magic to Les Miserables, placing people against bland backgrounds, using sweeping shots when they’re most jarring, using close-ups when sweeping shots could really soar, and generally just making choice after choice that ends up harming the film on every visual level. And as for that much-vaunted choice to let the actors sing as they perform, it gives us pretty mixed results. When it works – Hathaway’s rightly praised “I Dreamed a Dream” being the obvious standout – it really works, bringing out some real emotion and beauty. But when it doesn’t, it really doesn’t. Worse, it ends up making the film feel like a bit of a mixed bag. As Tasha Robinson points out in her astute review for The A.V. Club, it often feels like each actor took his/her own approach to the material, and rather than lining them up, Hooper just chucks it all into the film, resulting in a maddening experience that jumps wildly between songs.
For all of that, though, there’s some great pieces here. Again, whatever my issues with Hooper’s visual style (or lack thereof), he seems to be able to get great performances, and there are some swing-for-the-fences roles here. Even Crowe, who’s gotten a lot of flak for his vocal issues (and the flak is admittedly deserved at points) brings a good performance to Javert in his quieter, more physical moments. Jackman gets a little hammy at points, but that’s okay; it’s a big role, and a little ham generally doesn’t hurt it for the most part. And while Sasha Baron Cohen seems to be in a little movie of two with Helena Bonham Carter (who basically plays her character from Sweeney Todd again), his comic timing is pretty impeccable.
Still, it’s a frustrating experience, and I spent big chunks of it frustrated with the movie I was getting. Yes, there are some great patches, and some solid performances, but you can’t help but wish that it was in the hands of someone who knew how to film it and how to maximize the drama a bit better than Hooper. For all of that, though, there’s no denying the power, the catchiness, and the infectious nature of the musical itself, and that, more than anything else, makes the movie work as well as it does.