Saturday 12 January 2013

Les Misérables (2013) - Tom Hooper

With his Les Misérables, Tom Hooper has done what many felt was impossible.  But should it have stayed on the stage?

In front of the camera, Hooper has created a gritty, more realistic production of Schönberg’s musical.  The grimy sets are oddly beautiful and the costumes are sumptuous.  Through excellent direction, Hooper has proved that The King's Speech wasn't a one-off.  Fleshing out the production, the narrative is far more lucid with definitive depictions of each character.  As a whole though this is not the definitive experience - that still belongs to the stage show.

Hooper's realism shifts emphasis from the music on to the narrative.  But the story is essentially a simple one: man steals bread, everyone dies.  It might be set in post-revolutionary France, but context takes a backseat to the human story.  It's an incredibly melodramatic tale, only accentuated by the constant close-up shots.  By recording the singing live, the performances are raw but there's often a disconnect between the vocals and the orchestra.  As a result, the beauty of the music is diminished in favour of the weak plot.  Additionally, the realism is undermined by the inherent operatic structure that lends a stop-start, stagey feel.

Any production of Les Misérables is only as good as its cast which, in this case, is wildly inconsistent.  The film is at its best when the music takes full force.  Indeed Les Misérables requires strong singers and those cast members who originate from the stage are by far the strongest.  Aaron Tveit impresses as Enjoiras, the leader of a talented male ensemble, whilst Samantha Barks gives an emotional performance as Éponine with a strong, rich vocal.

The same cannot be said for Russel Crowe's Javert.  He fails for the most basic of reasons: enunciation. Chosen for his rockstar voice, he sings in a style that's inappropriate for the music, whilst offering a robotic, going-through-the-motions delivery.  Amanda Seyfried doesn't fair much better as Cosette.  It's a small role, but her thin, whispy soprano collapses beneath the music.  Thankfully Hooper has the sense to cut away when she sings the higher notes.

Elsewhere, Helena Bonham-Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen entertain as the Thénardiers, essentially recreating their roles from Sweeney Todd.  Their mockery of the film is clear, though it's much needed amongst all the misery.  Eddie Redmayne's solid vocal is a pleasant surprise, presenting a Marius that's far from a wet sap.  At the core of the film is Jean Valjean.  Hugh Jackman brings a natural masculinity to the role that suits the character, though his delivery of Bring Him Home sounds strained, missing the usual sweet falsetto.

Ultimately the film belongs to Anne Hathaway as Fantine.  Her performance is truly heart-wrenching, stealing the film with only fifteen minutes of screen time and one aria.  In fact, her three minute rendition of I Dreamed A Dream is the best moment in a three-hour, bum-numbing experience.  That's the mark of an Oscar worthy actress.