Watching Les Misérables is a bit like listening to a young pop star do a cover of a Beatles classic. She can have all the talent in the world, but it still sounds somehow wrong.
Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the beloved stage musical is oozing with good intentions, and they are often enough to carry the day, just not to provide the triumphant, glorious spectacle that so many of the musicals fans will zealously try to convince themselves they are watching.
The cast (with the possible exception of Sacha Baron Cohen) is uniformly excellent, with Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman acquitting themselves (no pun intended) particularly well. The visuals complement the story while never (unlike in The Hobbit) overwhelming them.
And yet…and yet…
The film never soars, never takes flight, never triumphs. If everything about it is so honorable and exceptional, why did watching it feel like such a chore?
One possible answer is that the decision to sing the songs live and thus encourage the actors to experiment with different deliveries has created a film that sometimes feels as though it is trying way too hard to distance itself from its source material. When Jean Valjean takes flight from the bishop who would ultimately send him down the path of redemption the breaking up of the patter song that introduces that key moment into spoken dialogue feels like a hole in the Mona Lisa. That Fantine’s song is moved to immediately after her first sexual encounter is okay, but the inclusion of a bit about her selling her teeth as well as her hair seems strange and alien, especially given Hooper’s penchant for tight close ups that show her perfect front teeth through much of the song. Russel Crowe’s vocals were okay by me, but his interpretation of Javert seems a little too subdued. Musical characters wear their hearts and minds on their sleeve and are above all emotionally expressive, even when they are button downed.
I have heard some of my colleagues complain that the film does not feel epic enough, that the sweep and scope of the source material is somehow curtailed by the transfer to the screen. Certainly much of the pageantry of the stage production is lost or muted, but I’ve always found Les Miz to be more intimate, more grounded in human relationships and heart transformations than its revolutionary setting might suggest. I fear that trying to capture the moments that are epic on stage would make about as much sense as filming Miss Saigon outdoors and trying to make as big a deal of the helicopter landing. The opening credits go for scale, but what’s big in the play are the emotions, and it sure felt to me as though the deliveries (“I Dreamed a Dream” excepted, which not coincidentally became the marketing centerpiece) were too restrained. Perhaps the film was going for the gradual accrual of emotions rather than the peak-plateau-higher peak, how-high-can-you-go intensity of the stage production. For whatever reason, as each major song slipped away, I felt like a fan watching his favorite baseball team run out of at bats and hoping, praying, that the next man up would either start a rally or swing for the fences.
Where does that leave viewers? I can’t say that Les Misérables was a bad film, and I won’t begrudge anyone who loves it nor gripe about any awards it received. As for me, I realized that I would rather listen to the CD of the Broadway production for the thousandth time than watch the film for a second time.