Directed by: Tom Hooper || Produced by: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Written by: William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer || Starring: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen
Music by: Claude-Michel Schonberg || Cinematography by: Danny Cohen || Editing by: Melanie Ann Oliver || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 158 minutes
Let’s get one thing straight right: If you go into this newest adaptation of Les Miserables expecting a regular film, or even a “typical” musical consisting mostly of spoken dialogue with several musical numbers interspersed throughout, you’re going to be as confused as I was.
Musical renditions of Les Mis are in a format called a “sung-through” musical, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of devoting most of its exposition to normal dialogue like Oklahoma! and The Music Man, sung-through musicals possess little, if any, spoken dialogue, and character development is conveyed almost entirely through song. The line between musical and opera begins to blur here, and if you’re a relative stranger to theatre and stage-acting, the easiest way to classify Les Miserables the musical is to think of it as opera, because that’s essentially what is.
It is important to note that, while there have been dozens of film-adaptations of the original novel by Victor Hugo, this 2012 version is the first rendition of the musical-adaptation of the same name by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. In that sense, Tom Hooper’s 2012 film-musical is an adaptation of an adaptation, and the first of its kind.
One can further compare and contrast this sung-through musical with other more dialogue-based film-musicals, particularly Bollywood ones. Hindi musicals garner perhaps the most intriguing juxtaposition to Les Mis because they are opposite approaches to the filmed musical. Where as in most Bollywood productions, spoken conversations dominate run-times, almost none of the on-screen actors actually sing their songs, and most of the musical numbers feature elaborate dance choreography and dazzling camerawork, Les Mis features pervasive singing (roughly 90% of its exposition is conveyed through song), all the actors are trained singers, and most of the cinematography during the singing is plain and straightforward by comparison.
This presents tradeoffs between both storytelling techniques. The more common dialogue in Hindi musicals is easier to follow, but having the starring cast sing on camera makes for less fake-looking performance and avoids sloppy lip-syncing. However, more diverse cinematography in Bollywood productions adds a layer of depth to the musical numbers that Les Miserables lacks. Whichever style works best depends on the story, but for the most part, the sung-through structure of LM works well if you can get past the odd first thirty minutes.
To its credit, Les Mis does a good job pacing its primary song numbers with its quieter, more awkward “song conversations.” The major numbers are dramatic and colorful, like they should be, and everyone seems to have a mammoth voice and range, which they use to generate fabulous melodies.
The camerawork during these musical sequences however, is less impressive. As I noted earlier, Les Mis lacks much of the fantastic visuals and complex choreography of more elaborate South Asian musicals, and the shots during these numbers are most always extreme close-ups of the singers. While this helps to emphasize emotion, this style of cinematography grows old real fast; you can’t help but think how much more powerful these dramatic sequences would have been if more diverse camerawork had been used. As for the sung-through portions in between the major musical numbers, much of the conveyed information feels awkward, especially when the camera remains static.
A further problem is the film’s editing and distribution of screen-time. Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, and Eddie Redmayne get their fair share of attention, but I found the considerable allotment given to Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samantha Bark’s characters excessive given their character’s minor roles.
A nice surprise is the strength of Les Miserables’ battle-scenes. The period-piece action is as intense and emotional as the music, if not more so. These scenes are a great release of tension and do a fantastic job to iron out the pacing in the story, the majority of which is defined by the hit-or-miss musical numbers.
The film wisely ends its depressing tale on an upbeat note as Jackman’s Jean Valjean marches into a sort of metaphorical “afterlife” celebrating the future freedom of the French peasantry and the promise of a brighter future for the French nation. The climax feels earned rather than pandering, and is one of my favorite moments of the film.
Altogether, the long awaited film-rendition of the Les Mis musical is a unique trip to the cinemaplex, standing out from the pack with its musical potency and gritty, 19th century warfare. It’s fun to see such a star-studded cast used effectively, and even more so to see them all sing, even if the musical sequences themselves aren’t filmed to their full potential. Overall, the combination of blockbuster production values, musical drama, and the heartfelt emotion of Victor Hugo’s timeless novel is a potent, if flawed one.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The revolutionary violence of Les Miserables packs a visceral wallop. The makeup effects on Jackman and the costume design on the whole cast bring out the narrative’s historical flavor. The film concludes the dark, melodramatic plot on an optimistic and satisfying patriotic tone, which does much to encapsulate the story’s themes.
— However… the plain, repetitive close-ups of the actors during their musical numbers lack pizzazz and visual variety. Some of the sung-through portions feel awkward. The film’s pacing slows when it spends too much time on the Thenardiers.
—> ON THE FENCE: It’s a fun adaptation of a timeless work, but people who hate musicals won’t be converted, and cinematographically speaking, it is lacking.
? Do people relate to this whole “love at first sight” plot-device?