(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.