Monday, January 7, 2013

Les Miserables (2012)

 (Disclaimer so people know where I am coming from with this review: I adore the musical “Les Miserables.” I’ve seen the musical three times on stage.  I love the score and listen to it all time on CD. It’s one of my all-time favorite musicals.

I consider the reading of the original Victor Hugo novel to be one of the most profound reading experiences of my life. I’ve seen most of the movie versions, and especially love the 1935 version with Charles Laughton and Frederic March. A five-hour French version from 1934 recently played by TCM and I was blown away by how gripping it was. I just love this story and its characters.)


Based on seeing the movie version of the musical “Les Miserables” (2012), I surmised that director Tom Hooper graduated summa cum laude from the Joshua Logan School of How NOT to Direct a Musical.

You know Joshua Logan. The guy who filmed “South Pacific” (1958) on location and then used colored filters throughout.

The guy who hired non-singers Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave for “Camelot” (1967) and filmed a lot of the numbers in close-up (Tom Hooper must have studied “Camelot” a lot).

Speaking of non-singers, Logan cast those iconic warblers Lee Marvin (!) and Clint Eastwood (!!) in “Paint Your Wagon” (1969).

Musical follies, one and all. Add “Les Miserables” to the list of one of the worst musicals of all time.

“Les Miserables” is the biggest disappointment I’ve had at the movies in years. It’s a soul-crushing disappointment from someone who has waited years for a movie version of this show.

Let’s call “Les Miserables” for what it is – an opera. Not grand opera, of course, but an opera nonetheless. If a story is told entirely in song, then it’s an opera. Sure there are a few scenes of dialogue, but Beethoven’s “Fidelio” is considered an opera, and that has long dialogue passages.  So “Les Miserables” is an opera.

And operas need voices. It helps if they’re good actors, but the first requirement is good voices. No, not good voices, but great voices.

Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and even Russell Crowe have good singing voices.

But not for this material.

Ten minutes in, with the largely laughably large-scaled CGI opening, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, trying vainly to hit the high notes, I had a sinking feeling I was going to be in for the long haul over the next two and a half hours. And I was.

The cast isn’t really to blame. They try their best. But they can’t sing these songs. It’s beyond their abilities.


The show’s two best known songs are “I Dreamed a Dream” and “Bring Him Home.” A lot of people have heaped praise on Anne Hathaway’s singing, and acting of the former, but I’m in the minority. Shot in extreme close-up, I was so distracted by the tears and running snot that it took me out of the scene. I know movies are more intimate than what is on stage, but I’ve always been moved by this song, so I don’t need the extreme close-ups to sell it. The less said about Jackman’s rendition of “Bring Him Home” the better. A tough song to sing, to be sure, but it was embarrassingly bad.

A friend of mine commented afterwards that maybe in the old days, Hollywood knew what they were doing when they dubbed the singing voices of their big stars. Sure no one would rush out to see Marni Nixon in “The King and I” (1956) or “My Fair Lady” (1964) but they would go see Deborah Kerr and Audrey Hepburn, respectively. Are those films really lessened by having the leads dubbed? Is Rita Hayworth any less a screen icon because her voice was dubbed singing “Put the Blame on Mame” in “Gilda” (1946) and in her musicals?

So you have a sung-through musical where the leads can’t properly sing the songs, and a director who doesn’t have the foggiest idea of how to stage a musical. Director Hooper use of extreme close-ups throughout gets tiresome after the fourth or fifth time. For me, these are most effective for key emotional moments, not 2.5 hours worth.

And let me get this off my chest. If I hear any more prattle from the cast and crew about the effectiveness of recording the songs live during the filming, I think I may yawn myself to death. Based on the evidence here, I don’t see what the big deal is.

I may be reading too much into these interviews, but there’s an air of condescension and smugness when the cast and director talk about how much more real it is singing live than to a pre-recorded track. It’s as if they’re brushing aside seven decades worth of musicals.

As one who decries the often rapid cuts of today’s movies, I should be applauding Hooper’s use of minimal cutting. But the camera work is static to the point of inertia and when Hooper does move the camera, it’s often the dreaded shaky cam effect, and tilted camera angles, and the whole thing becomes annoying to watch.

One of the show’s most famous songs is the comic number “Master of the House” and it’s a bit of welcome black comedy levity in the often grim proceedings. But it’s very badly staged here, with dumbfounded literalness played out ad nauseum. There’s no sense of movement and looks like it was staged for a community theater production. Like everything else in the film, it’s cramped and claustrophobic.

Adding blame to this disaster was the very poor musical direction, for which I blame orchestrators Anne Dudley and Stephen Metcalfe and music supervisor Becky Bentham. They do the music no favors. Everything is pitched in the most low-key manner possible. The orchestrations are depressingly small-scaled and the musical accompaniment isn’t allowed to soar. It also sounded to like a very poor sound mix, with the orchestra barely heard in the background. It could be one of the tinniest-sounding musicals I’ve ever heard.

(Despite my snarky comments directed at the top of this review to those three Joshua Logan-directed musicals, the musical direction by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby for “South Pacific” and “Camelot”, and by Nelson Riddle and Roger Wagner for “Paint Your Wagon” are superb and can’t be beat. They are by far the best factors of those movies).


I’ve done a lot of complaining. Is there anything good in the movie? I liked Samantha Barks as Eponine. She brings a real humanity to the part, and has a good voice. Playing the role on stage obviously helped. I thought all the guys who played the young revolutionaries had strong voices, well suited to the material. But it’s a sad state of affairs that the secondary and third characters in an opera are the best singers.

And while Russell Crowe has gotten the lion’s share of disdainful reviews, I’m going to cut him slack. True, he has the weakest voice of any of the leads. But for me, he was the only one who realized he was playing to the motion picture camera. I never felt like he was striving to reach for the last row in the highest balcony in the largest auditorium in the world.


I must admit to tearing up quite a bit at each of the live performances I’ve seen. There’s a little bit of that here in the final scene – how could there be not be – but I was curiously unmoved. I actually told my friends I didn’t want to see it with them, because it would be too embarrassing for them to see me afterwards. No problem here. I could have just watched “Skyfall” for all the emotion it generated for me

I know a lot of people who have seen this movie and just love it. Good for them. I’m glad. It could be their first introduction to this wonderful story and I’m glad they enjoyed it so much.

But it was such a let down for me. It’s been years since I was looking forward to a movie so much. I love this material. But alas, “Les Miserables” is the biggest disappointment I’ve had at the movies since Daniel Craig’s second 007 outing, the execrable “Quantum of Solace” (2008). “Les Miserables” is one of the worst movies of the year. It’s one of the worst musicals ever made. It’s an ugly film to look at and a painful one to listen to. It kills me to write that.


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, you do have guts, but you shouldn't have to be brave to write an honest review. At least not to reasonable people. I am dying to see this movie, but in my heart I have had the same kind of dreads that you have described. Damn!

I remember being incredibly disappointed at the very BAD movie treatment of "A Chorus Line", one of the the greats made mediocre by a bad director and ignorance of story and casting. Also, I was devastated by "The Phantom of the Opera", for which I may be crucified alongside you for saying that. Gerard Butler, way too handsome, could sort of sing, but he could not perform those marvelous songs as they should have been. Emmy Rossum spent the whole time staring at the camera with her mouth open and a dim look on her face. Raoul, Patrick Wilson, was good, but then they add in a stupid sword fight scene that made no sense.

I don't know - I guess you can tell I feel that many modern movie-makers butcher the fabulous, well-loved modern musicals we all anticipate with such joy, and then find ourselves deflated. I agree with you that these guys do a lot of bragging about ways to film as if they could do better than Carousel, Oklahoma, Astaire/Rogers musicals, etc. They are the ones who have a lot of nerve!!

Anonymous said...


Kevin Deany said...

Becky, I'll be curious to hear your reaction to it. And while I agree with much of the criticism of "Phantom of the Opera" especially with the Gerard Butler casting, I thought the film was extremely well directed. There's a whole central portion of the film, with the "All I Ask of You" song, and the masquerade ball,which offers some of the best musical movie moments in the last two decades. I think it would have been some sort of classic with a different cast.

ClassicBecky said...

I should amend my comments to say that yes, there are wonderful parts to the movie, such as you describe. However, the casting of the Phantom and Christine were mainly directed at the typical teenage-young 20's demographic, and the two actors, despite Emmy's voice being wonderful she isn't a very good actress, so both were inadequate for this great musical play. Plus, Butler as the Phantom was deliberately kept so handsome that it lost the whole point of the story. I remember telling my sister that he is so gorgeous, what's the problem? Just sit on his right side all the time and everything would be fine! LOL!

I will let you know when I see Les Miserables!

ClassicBecky said...

P.S., just to be clear, I thought the direction of "A Chorus Line" was awful, not "Phantom"...

Kevin Deany said...

"Plus, Butler as the Phantom was deliberately kept so handsome that it lost the whole point of the story. I remember telling my sister that he is so gorgeous, what's the problem? Just sit on his right side all the time and everything would be fine!"

Becky, it's only Monday but this will likely rank as the best laugh of the week.

Yeah, "A Chorus Line" reeks.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I don't know this work, but it's clear that you're thoroughly familiar with it and therefore qualified to judge the film version with authority. Your extreme disappointment in the film was evident, yet your tone was never nasty or condescending. I thought you presented your assessment of the film in a way that was always clear and well reasoned. I find it harder to write about films I'm cool towards than about than ones I like, so I have to hand it to you for tackling this one.

Separately, I have to say how much I agree with you about the virtues of the 1935 Hollywood version and the earlier French version, especially Harry Baur's Jean Valjean. Also about how wretched the movie version of "South Pacific" is!

Rick29 said...

Kevin, I saw the new "Les Miserables" over the holidays and--like you--was miserable for what seemed like eternity. My wife and I had seen a Broadway touring version of it several years ago and quite enjoyed the musical. But the film adaptation was a disaster for all the reasons you stated so well. Personally, I thought Crowe was terrible in terms of acting and singing. Hathaway's big number was OK, but the I agree that the extreme close-up was distracting (it will probably work better on a TV screen). I got so sick of Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen that I am now hesitant to watch any musical with performers using all three names! Every time I thought we were done seeing them, they would show up again (like at the wedding). Anyway, I won't continue to say bad things, but I am truly shocked that it has been highly touted by critics and many movie-goers.

ClassicBecky said...

Hope you don't mind my hopping over here again, but this time I had to comment on a comment! Rick, you made my laugh for the week with: " ... I am now hesitant to watch any musical with performers using all three names!" Love it!

Kevin Deany said...

R.D. I always feel bad slamming something that people obviously worked so hard on. And the effort shows, but the results, for me, were sorely lacking. But I know alot of people are loving the movie, so it's obviously striking some chords with people. Now for something like the "Total Recall" remake this year, I come out with both barrels blazing. No excuse for ignoring even the rudimentary aspects of filmmaking and story telling.

Rick, I second Becky's comment about performers with three names. Yes, it was a disappointment. I went with a couple of friends, one who had seen the play twice, and he was shocked at how bad it was. Yet there was applause at our screening. I guess it all comes down to individual taste.

Another friend suggested people may not like the trained voices of a Broadway show, and may prefer the more ragged singing on display here. There might be something to that.

MisterHoney said...

You ain't kidding, it was stinko. I saw the London show in 1987 and thought it might have the power of the original. No so! You know from the start that the singing is all wrong and Hathaway's bug-eyed close ups were very tiresome. We watched in two separate sittings, because we just could take it after the first half. Never again.

silverscreenings said...

I've been hesitant to see this movie because I love the stage version so much, and I think your review has touched on all the things I wondered about.

I enjoyed your review; I think I'll wait for the DVD.

Brian said...

I just watched the classic 12 Angry Men. It is a great example of how to use a close up camera shot for dramatic effect. The director of Les Mes should have watched 12 Angry Men to learn the proper way to shoot a film.

Classicfilmboy said...

Hi Kevin, Never apologize for a bad review as long as it's honest and you have legitimate reasons for your opinions. Yours is an excellent review. I finally saw the film yesterday, and while I liked it more than you, I ultimately was unsatisfied by it. I'm a film musical fan and believe any film adaptation of a stage musical should have a different look and feel so it differentiates itself from what can be found on stage. A strong musical can still come through on film even if the direction isn't inventive (see "My Fair Lady"). With that said, I actually liked Jackman and Hathaway. In fact, I thought Hathaway was the best performer stuck in poorly directed sequences. While I didn't mind her closeup in "I Dreamed a Dream," it was the use of closeups throughout that diminished its impact. Frankly, because of the overuse of closeups, I thought like I could reach out and clip Hugh Jackman's nose hairs at certain points. As for Russell Crowe, he -- or perhaps the director -- kept his performance at a monotone. There was little differentiation between Javert being excited, frustrated, downtrodden or suicidal. Every emotion was presented in the same muted way. I agree that the young revolutionary cast members had better voices, but they all looked like they wandered out off a Vogue magazine shoot about old France. Poor Samantha Banks looked way too contemporary, and in her death scene Tom Hooper made her glow with youth, beauty and health! I won't even mention how annoying I found Carter and Cohen. And yet I was still moved by the plight of Jean Valjean, for which I commend Jackman for maintaining his character's emotional journey. This also represents the power of a good musical trapped in a sub-par film version. So ... while I don't think this is as bad as South Pacific or A Chorus Line, it still could have been much much better.

Kevin Deany said...

CFB, my friend said the same thing, about the extended use of close-ups negating the power of those used during Anne Hathaway's big scene. I think you are both right.

Now, I tend to like scene chewers. I like big, hammy performances, from the likes of Paul Muni, Bela Lugosi, the Barrymore brothers, etc. I just don't want to see them in extreme close up.

Brian, "12 Angry Men" is a great example of using the close ups only for key scenes.

Dave J L said...

A musical with sung dialogue is not an opera, there's rather more to it than that, the complexity of the musical structure and the voice requirements not least among the differences (dramatic it may be but Les Mis still requires the musical theatre voice, not that of the opera house). I agree with a lot of your review - Samantha Barks was very good, Jackman strained - but where I differ is that I think it's a so-so adaptation of an incredibly overrated musical; there's endless dull singing with very little music, just shapeless notes and phrases, occasionally interspersed with only slightly less dull sentimental tunes. The whole thing is harmonically so colourless and conservative, and the writing so unimaginative... I saw it on stage when I was younger and remember finding it ponderous but thought I'd give it another go, but it's just interminable. And why are the blandest musical passages all invested with such a melodramatic sense of importance?

Kevin Deany said...

Dave, thanks so much for writing. Yeah, you're probably right, it's not an opera. I guess I was thinking about how much of the dialogue is sung, rather than talked. I still like the material, probably because I love the source material so much.

At first I thought I was too hard on the singing, but a few weeks ago I was shopping in a Barnes & Noble, and they were playing the film soundtrack throughout the store, and man, I couldn't flee the store fast enough. I did enjoy the singing from the secondary characters, like Samantha Barks, but that's it. And I still think the Anne Hathaway Oscar win was not deserved.