Movie Built on Worst Premise (Winner): Les Misérables!

This movie won this award going away. Believe you me, this was not close.

I had meant to go see Les Misérables on the day it came out, but it turns out I, shall I say, grossly underestimated the fervor with which this movie would be received. I arrived at at mid-afternoon on Christmas Day to find over a thousand people celebrating their holiday by standing in a shivering line on the sidewalk outside the theater. I decided to make other plans.

When I eventually did see the movie a few days later, it was with my friend Brady*, who had already seen it but wanted to watch it with me because it was, and I quote, “the best movie he’d ever seen.”

*The name may be familiar to anyone who follows me on Twitter.

You will not be surprised from the title of this post to discover that I did not agree with that assessment. At the end of the movie, though, I was reluctant to admit my true feelings to Brady, who had stayed in the theater to sing along with the end credits – undeterred by the fact that the end credits didn’t actually have any lyrics. This was a man who loved this movie unconditionally.

If you, like Brady, are a true believer, I can do nothing for you. You can stop reading right now, if you even made it this far, since I don’t think we will have much to talk about

I know that even true believers are willing to quibble about some of the flaws within the movie – even the film’s biggest supporters have problems with the film’s constant insistence on close-ups, and with the miscasting of Russell Crowe.* But I doubt that outside of that, we will find much in the way common ground. Because I thought the film, though not without its high points, was a butchered by directorial mistakes on the macro level. I thought the entire effort was wholly misguided. I thought the film failed.

*As a longtime Crowe fan, I was pretty stunned at how much his film presence proved dependent on his ability to gravely intone his lines in a low monotone, something he never got a chance to do here.

Les Mis, as you probably already know, is a “sung-through” musical, a work in which almost every line is conveyed through song. America has produced a handful of these works (outside of Les Mis, the list includes only a few shows you’d recognize: Cats, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and maybe one or two more), though few have found their way to film. Les Mis is a good example of why.

This is a good time to warn you that this post is going to delve immediately into a discussion of (or diatribe on) cinematography, directorial choices, and “film language.” I could promise to do my best to neither insult your intelligence nor become too obscure, but I don’t think you need to worry. The overwhelming theme here is “frustration and dismay.” You’ll follow along.

Les Misérables, as a musical, is very effective at what it does on the stage because it conveys what’s happening in each of its scenes plainly and immediately. A show like Phantom of the Opera requires masks and mirrors and boats and hundreds of candles and a descending chandelier to really sell its story, while Les Mis requires only a pile of old chairs, some grubby makeup, and a little imagination. The characters tell you where they are, what they want, even the backstory of their characters.

Film, as a medium, doesn’t require that much description – in fact, it abhors it. The schlockiest and most ham-handed movies are the ones where the characters describe their motivations on screen. It’s a mantra repeated a million times a day in film classes everywhere: “show, don’t tell.”

When you transport a stage show to the screen, you have to acknowledge that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. The film’s director, Tom Hooper, is enamored with one of those strengths – the ability to show the actor’s performance is close-up – and completely oblivious to all other details. The film is shot on dozens of what seem like ornate and interesting sets (there is a truly magnificent set at the tail end of the film we get only a glimpse of), but Hooper eschews action and conversation for the chance to let us get his camera up close and stare unblinkingly into the actors’ faces. Each time a character sings a song – which, if you weren’t paying attention two paragraphs back, is literally all the time – the film stops, and sits and waits and watches as the actor warbles and gasps and emotes and feels things until the song draws to a close. Only then are we allowed to continue on with the story.

I am not knocking this as an occasional convention – Anne Hathaway has won lots of well-deserved attention for her choking, breathlessly sad version of “I Dreamed A Dream,” sung just a few moments after Fantine has sold her body to a passing soldier, in a coffin, in the belly an abandoned warship. She is in what could charitably be called dire straits, and we stop and mourn with her at how life has turned out so differently from what she expected. It is an unquestionably powerful moment, but it’s undercut by the fact that just a few minutes before, we’d paused to watch another character sit and sing us his thoughts, as Jean Valjean sang alone in a church about deciding to become an honest man.

As the movie continues, we pause, and pause again, each time a character is in distress. Javert stands on a balcony and debates his dedication to his task. Cosette curls up on her bed questions her life story. Marius sits alone, sad that all his friends are dead (uh, spoiler alert). The movie’s plot is like a car that keeps stalling jerkily to a halt.

On stage, each of these songs is a big emotional moment that allows the audience into the story, because how else would we know what the character thinks other than what they tell us? How would we sense the emotion other than in the timbre of their voices? You’re playing to the cheap seats, kid. Make us feel it.

But on film, there’s a succinctness of language that isn’t evident here. Emotions should be conveyed with just a glistening eye, decisions explained with the smallest of looks. But here, we watch Eponine tell us what the pavement looks like in the moonlight. Girl, we can see the damn pavement. Stop walking around in circles and go do something.

The entire first chunk of the film could have been covered in only a few minutes time, springing Jean Valjean from slave to peasant to mayor in the blink of an eye. But instead we watch Valjean pace endlessly at the church altar, debating what the course of his life would be. Movies aren’t for debating, Jean. They’re for doing. The French Revolution is happening any second, and you’re still sitting here.

Speaking of that revolution: perhaps it’s blasphemy to suggest this, but... is it fair to note that parts of Les Mis aren’t actually all that good? The show has half-a-dozen showstoppers and another few solid numbers (more than enough to make a great stage show), but most of the recitative stuff in the middle abandons melody and rhythm for simplicity of exposition. It’s weak on the stage, but it’s murder here.

What’s more, in its effort to hack Victor Hugo’s 1,500-page novel down to size, most of the nuance is lost. It’s impossible to tell what revolution these characters are fighting, since there are no causes here, just passions. We watch dozens of characters die, but for what? The only thing the movie really seems in favor of is not pre-judging people just because they stole bread. And if you do, you should probably go ahead and kill yourself (hey, more spoilers!).

Too say nothing of the fact that Tom Hooper just doesn’t seem to know what to do with the camera. I’ve seen a fair bit of Hooper’s work at this point, and while he’s a magician with actors, he has the tendency to conflate ‘unconventional’ with ‘daring.’ He shoots every shot with an wide-angle lens, come hell or high water. If he finds a shot boring, he makes it so the actor’s head is facing towards the wrong part of the frame, or tilts the camera to the side. Tom, if it’s a boring shot one way, it’s a boring shot sideways. Find a better shot.

I find myself physically frustrated, wanting to physically tear the camera away and reframe the shots myself. It would be one thing if these shots were telling us something – they are unbalanced because the character feels unbalanced, they trap the character in awkward framings because the character feels trapped.

In Gus Van Sant’s Milk, every time Harvey Milk interacts with his future killer, Dan White, the shots are framed with the characters stuck to the very bottom, highlighting the sense of uncertainty White feels every time he interacts with Milk. Even if you aren’t keyed in to what’s happening, you sense even in their blandest conversation that something deeper is happening here. The framing tells you something.

Here’s a random assortment of still frames from some of Hooper’s films, and they tell me only that Hooper’s trying to distract from what he thinks is a dull scene.

Look, I’m not the LesMisophile* that many are, but I’m enough a fan that I wanted to see someone do justice to its material. I wanted the drama and emotion of the story to be told with the immediacy and awe of large-scale filmmaking, but all I got was a stage show that got dressed up and pretended to be film.

*patent pending, yo.

Also, Ross asked me to make sure I made a “I went to see Les Misérables, and I wish that it had made me less miserable!” joke, so there you go. I don’t think it translates so well to the page, because you can’t see me do my saucy finger-waggle.