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 Misérables (henceforth, Les Mis or LM) 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 Mis 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 Mis’ 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 Misérables musical is a unique trip to the cineplex, 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 Misérables 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 Thénardiers, for example (Cohen and Bonham Carter).
—> 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?
Great review, excellent blog 🙂
Keep the awesome reviews coming!
Thanks for the compliment! I should have some Bollywood and Japanese flick reviews coming soon 🙂
I’m always curious to see what other people think of Les Mis, especially since I liked it so much, but it’s understandable why people might think it awkward or boring (as some reviews claimed it to be).
Personally, I thought the camerawork was great. I believe Tom Hooper’s intent was to make this movie as real and emotional as possible so as to contrast to the ironic/cynical/detached feeling that has become a noticeable trend in pop culture. The in-your-face shots (or, rather, in-their-face shots) make it impossible to escape the situation. When Fantine is a foot away from the camera, crying about her life being torn apart by society, it’s pretty hard to think about anything else. If this movie had been shot with fancy cinematography, it would have given you something else to think about, and Hooper doesn’t want you to think about anything but the emotion these people are feeling.
I also have to disagree with you on the Thenardier’s prevalence throughout the play. I think they represent a group of people who were prevalent during those times, as well as now. They’re there as a commentary more than anything else.
I have to agree with you on the love story thing, though. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t if Cosette and Marius’ love story was as fairytale originally, or if that was something to bring a wider audience in, but it was really in contrast to the rest of the movie.
Overall, though, interesting review!
Obviously, we will have to agree to disagree on the camerawork point. I think that a large variety of cinematographic styles can aid in communicating character emotion during song/dance numbers much more so than one, singular style can, exemplified by the illustrious and varied techniques seen in Bollywood musicals. Diverse, sweeping camerawork can serve a lot more than to add a sense of adventure and vertigo to a scene. It can emphasize emotion very powerfully, much like how close-up shots can do the same (as you mentioned). I think Hindi cinema in general does a great job of this, using diverse cinematographic techniques to capture human emotion.
That’s the main thing I felt about Hooper’s camerawork during LM’s singing — it lacked variety. I thought the up-close shots were effective the first few times they were used, but I found them tiresome by the halfway point. Certainly, emotional intensity can be conveyed without shoving the camera right up in the actor’s face, over and over. With that said, I feel that the in-their-face shots did aide the film at many points — I just also think that it detracted from scenes in just as many instances, though.
As for the Thenardiers, I understand why they were put there, but I don’t think those reasons were particularly strong. The main focus of the story was Jean Valjean, and to a lesser extent, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert. Once Cosette is released from the Thenardiers’ custody, they are essentially just filler from then on out. At the very least, I thought they could have completely cut out Eponine’s (Samantha Bark’s) whole character and her secret love for Marius. It added absolutely nothing to the story.
Now the whole love-at-first site thing is actually pretty true to Victor Hugo’s novel. Funnily enough, I think that this is actually another example of how a film adaptation being faithful to its source material simply for the sake of being faithful is not necessarily a good thing. The romance’s inception feels forced, artificial, and fake, just like it did in the novel. It is perhaps my least favorite parts of Les Mis’ story, if a relatively minor one.
But in any case, I appreciate your thorough and well-articulated comment. Let me know if you have any further comments or questions with the movies reviewed so far on this site, as I love film analysis. Do you have a blog as well? I tried to click on your name, but there was no link connected to it 😦