“No doubt a unique piece of filmmaking, but perhaps it's simply a step too far for Hooper...”
Having originated as an acclaimed novel, before turning into a triumphant stage play and now Oscar nominated feature-length film, there must be something about Les Misérables that has allowed for it to be so greatly received on various fronts, and it can only be the timeless, beautifully told story of love and war. Although sadly in Tom Hooper's adaptation, it's not one told to it's full potential.
Set in post-revolutionary France, we follow the life of ex-prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), who manages to break free of his parole to start a new life for himself in a bourgeois society. Although successfully managing to do so, he is forever shadowed by the villainous policeman Javert (Russell Crowe), desperate to track down his long-suffering target. Meanwhile, Valjean makes a promise to a troubled prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway) that he will care for her daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen/Amanda Seyfried), hoping to prise her away from her abusive adopted parents (Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen). Valjean remains the one true consistent character in Les Mis, as the feature shifts from the struggles of Fantine, to the romance blossoming between Cosette and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), taking place amidst the June Rebellion, as the characters fight not only for love, but their own lives.
Of course Les Mis is a musical production, and the songs are wonderfully crafted and beautifully arranged – yet the singing is incessant, as barely a spoken word is uttered throughout. Generally musicals work best when they are an even share of dialogue and song, whereas in this, every single line is sung, devaluing the big musical numbers somewhat. The big songs - particularly the ensemble pieces – are wonderful, but when the characters converse melodically it doesn't work so well, feeling contrived and unnatural. That said, the live singing performances are crucial, as you can really hear and feel the emotion within their voices as they act and sing simultaneously.
The greatest problem with Les Mis, however, is that it's extremely long and tedious, and you feel every minute of the two and a half hour running time. In fairness, the opening stages are wonderfully compelling as we open with a haunting rendition of 'Work Song' as the prisoners attempt to drag a ship, cast away at sea – a scene which has the hairs on the back of your neck standing tall. Although sadly, it's not a sign of things to come and the picture heads steadily downhill from this point onwards. When focusing predominantly on Fantine and Valjean, it's riveting, intense cinema, but as we progress to the younger crowd of revolutionaries and the shift of emphasis sees the romantic story takes precedence, it just gets tiresome. You want to grow into a film, not out of it.
One of the key reasons as to why the film is so much better in the early stages are certainly the performances from both Hathaway and Jackman; rightly rewarded with Oscar nominations for their troubles, in what are career-defining performances for the pair. Meanwhile, Crowe is also impressive, though it must be said that his vocal abilities are not quite as strong as those around him, with a tendency to bellow his lines rather than sing them. The other performance of note is Baron Cohen, yet despite his typically shrewd comic timing, he does seem out of place within this production, as it feels almost as though he isn't quite taking this as seriously as the others. Like the kid in maths who would draw pictures while those around him were multiplying away.
Les Mis is no doubt a unique piece of filmmaking, but perhaps it's simply a step too far for Hooper. Following the huge success of The King's Speech it was inevitable he was going to move into a big follow-up project, but this may just be too immense and ambitious. Both The King's Speech and The Damned United are far more modest examples of British cinema, and they worked extremely well for him, so perhaps he would have been wiser to have just remained within such a capacity.