More than the fate of France was riding on Les Miserables. The history of the live-action American movie musical since approximately the administration of Richard Nixon has been, in essence, a history of failures. Some of them were quickly forgotten, like Peter Bogdanovich’s 1975 movie, At Long Last Love, on which the director resumed the discontinued practice of having actors record their parts live, on set. Others, like Disney’s 1992 period piece Newsies, went down with such a resounding crash as to make the genre’s name a dirty word around studios for years to come.
One cannot, to be sure, call Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables an American movie musical. The director is English and he has two Australian male leads, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe, playing, respectively, the saintly fugitive Jean Valjean and Javert, the police detective who persecutes him. The material originated in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, set in a Paris wracked by the revolutionary contractions of the 19th century, between 1815 and 1832. This begat Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s concept album, which in turn attracted the attentions of British producer Cameron Mackintosh who, riding high off the success of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Cats, made it into a West End staple and transatlantic phenomenon.
And yet when Les Mis, as it has come to be affectionately nicknamed, finally arrived in America, it was something of a homecoming, for here was a big, bathetic historical musical rife with lachrymose torch songs, in the grand tradition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s 1927 film, Show Boat. It was a cultural phenomenon when the Great White Way sorely needed a hit, and when it was announced that a screen adaptation of Les Mis was forthcoming some 25 years after its Broadway debut, many naturally hoped that it might serve the same purpose for the big-budget English-language musical.
With full knowledge of the catastrophic precedent set by big-budget movie musicals over the last 40 years, and the duty of fulfilling the outsized expectations of thousands of musical theatre types, Hooper’s idea was to do something revolutionary. Like Bogdanovich on At Long Last Love, he recorded his actors singing live while listening to a piano accompaniment piped into an invisible earpiece. The score is recitive, meaning that every line is sung, although Hooper’s film cheats this a little bit, if only because actors sometimes find themselves catching their breath. The ostensible reason for this live-recording approach was to allow the cast a full range of emotional expression, as performance and song bonded without the intercession of the ADR booth; per the director: “I didn’t want any barriers between emotion and realism and truth.”
Hooper’s approach is rewarded by, to cite the most lauded example, the performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway plays Fantine, a dismissed factory worker reduced to prostituting herself. In Hooper’s clay-toned and dirt-caked Les Mis, colour of any kind is symptomatic of corruption, be it rouge or the loud clothes worn by the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), the nearest thing that the rather merciless play has to comic relief though, in the film, more gruesome in their joyless rascality than much of the ostensible tragedy. Hathaway, her head shorn so that she resembles the martyred Renee Falconetti of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, delivers the entirety of the song in a single take to a stationary camera. With lyrics like “I had a dream my life would be/ So different from this hell I’m living,” it is an inherently brutal tune, one that’s has been handled by some overpowering singers. Hathaway, consumptive frailty highlighted by the close-up, knows that she cannot better her predecessors’ vocal pyrotechnics, and reads the song as a breakdown, wrenching it out of herself rather than singing it, wild eyes leaking tears — it’s as if she is, in the course of the performance, ripping a bandage from some still-festering wound, then bundling it up again.
This is, however, only four minutes of two-and-a-half hours screentime. A work like Les Mis, which abounds in such moments of path-os and desperation, requires a firm hand to sculpt a distinguishing identity for each. One senses that Hooper, however, decided that such stylistic intercessions would be a disservice to his stated goal of “truth”, like studio-sweetened singing, for his filming of the songs adheres to rather predictable patterns, including head-on confessionals like “I Dreamed a Dream”, and the chase-down-the-cameraman (“Valjean’s Soliloquy”, “On My Own”), often with a levitating crane shot as the kicker. Only Javert is treated to grandiloquent, blocked-out stagings, belting over the roofs of Paris, though this is at odds with Crowe’s strained-if-earnest effort.
Despite its shortcomings, Les Misérables has done what conventional wisdom held was impossible — it has turned an immense profit. But if Hooper’s Les Mis is a financial success, it is not quite ready for the canon. Like its source, the film gives quite a bit of lip service to the revolutionary ideals of liberte, egalite et fraternite, but another word should be added to this list: monotony.
Pinkerton is a writer based in New York