Les Misérables: The YouTube Version

For all its stirring moments, Tom Hooper's film of the blockbuster musical spends too much time shouting at you in closeup

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Universal Pictures

Do you see the people sing,
Singing of love and bread and wars?
Singing in images so close-up
You can count the people’s pores?
Singing loud as if you’re deaf,
Singing it live. This truly is
Tom Hooper’s YouTube Karaoke
Film of Les Miz.

The movie’s first shot begins underwater, beneath a tattered French flag. Then it surfaces and ascends high above a ship being dragged into its dock by hundreds of rope-pulling convicts. Finally it swoops into a closeup of one of the prisoners, the emaciated Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), exerting himself in the chorus of the condemned: “Look down, look down/ Upon your fellow man!” Ordered by the warden Javert (Russell Crowe) to lift a heavy spar that carries another flag, Valjean does so, demonstrating tremendous strength and, in a brief tableau, proving he is a human Jesus, selflessly bearing a cross for the sins of humanity he has suffered all his life — and will suffer until his death.

This impressive opening scene of the movie Les Misérables kindles the hope that Tom Hooper, who won an Oscar for directing The King’s Speech, will find reserves of ingenuity to bring one of the world’s most popular stage musicals to potent life onscreen. He certainly has the material for it. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1,400-page novel, the musical follows Valjean from his 1815 prison parole after he served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and for several attempts at escape. His worldview is changed by the intervention of a kindly bishop (Colm Wilkinson), but his luck remains rotten. By 1823, having fled Javert’s obsessive pursuit, he earns wealth and standing under an assumed name as a factory owner and mayor. Unknown to him, one of his employees, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is unfairly fired and forced into prostitution to support her daughter Cosette, raised by the predatory innkeepers M. and Mme. Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). Valjean adopts and raises Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), who during the 1832 Paris uprising falls in love with the rebel aristocrat Marius (Eddie Redmayne), as does the Thénardiers’ plaintive daughter Éponine (Samantha Barks). Passion and politics are dirty work: nearly everyone ends up in the sewers.

(READ: Robert Hughes on that “sublime windbag,” Victor Hugo)

Filmed a couple dozen times, the 1862 novel became a sung-through show, a pop opera, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and a libretto by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, that opened in Paris in 1980. It found the form that launched its worldwide success in the 1985 London version that was anglicized by Herbert Kretzmer and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. That production — boasting an epic scale and revolving turntables that made the student revolt literally revolutionary — is still playing in London. Sibling editions ran on Broadway (for 16 years) and in 40 other countries in 20 other languages. The plight of Jean Valjean, of Fantine and Cosette and Éponine and perhaps even of Javert, has led millions to the barricade of tears. Despite what the young Cosette sings, crying is definitely allowed. One can debate whether Les Miz is superior musical drama, but, as millions can attest, it’s a great weep.

(READ: William A. Henry III’s 1987 review of the Broadway Les Misérables)

The new Les Miz, whose script by William Nicholson is faithful in most particulars to the show, remains a grand sob story on a noble plane — a tale of justice outraged, as Valjean marches in song up his 40-year calvary and a silent God looks down without intervening in the cruelties man perpetrates on man and woman. The Schönberg anthems retain their kick, smartly arranged for the screen and performed by a cast that is nothing if not game. (Jackman lost weight to play the part of the emaciated convict, then put on 30 lb. during the production; Hathaway, whom no one would call flabby, lost 25 lb.) Sensitive souls in search of wrenching emotion can be guaranteed their Kleenex moments; you will get wet. But aside from that opening scene, you will not be cinematically edified. This is a bad movie.

(READ: a review of the 1927 film of Les Misérables by subscribing to TIME)

You would have seen this coming if you paid attention to my early review of The King’s Speech, which went on to win Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Screenplay and, for Hooper, Direction. There, too, the central emotion — of a monarch crippled by his stammering — was strong, yet Hooper felt obliged to hammer home the feelings in case anyone missed them. He amplified to rock-concert level every pained plosive in the royal’s diction and pushed certain characters dangerously close to caricature (so we knew who were nature’s nobles and who were the knaves). Hooper’s emotional grandstanding forced some viewers, who prefer nuance over a poke in the heart, to juggle their response: tsk-tsking the florid directorial gestures even as they tried surrendering to the poignant story and acute performances. These viewers now face a greater challenge, for The King’s Speech was a model of subtlety compared with the excesses of Les Miz.

(READ: Corliss’s full review of The King’s Speech) 

“The fox knows many things,” goes the ancient Greek maxim cited in the last century by Isaiah Berlin, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hooper is a hedgehog. The one big thing he knows about Les Miz is that the songs should be performed live — recorded on the set, not in a studio before the shoot — as was the custom in Hollywood in the early sound era and was revived, not too fruitfully, in Peter Bogdanovich’s 1975 At Long Last Love. Beyond that, Hooper shot, whenever possible, in closeup and with no cuts.

(READ: Jesse Dorris on “a whole new kind of musical”)

This tactic works brilliantly — once: in Fantine’s solo “I Dreamed a Dream.” Her head shaved, her huge eyes welling up in the skull of her emaciated face, her clear soprano voice swooping into gritty gravity, Hathaway gives a bravura performance that is also the definitive reading of the text: idealism and disillusionment, life and death, all in one shot. At 19, the actress wowed the City Center Encores! audience as Lili in a 2002 revival of Carnival. At 30, she rescues “I Dreamed a Dream” from Susan Boyle and makes one wish that the Weinstein Company would exhume its notion of putting Hathaway on Broadway as Judy Garland.

(READ: Corliss on the Encores! musical revival series)

All right. We’ll grant that the single-take closeup strategy works twice: Barks, making her film debut after playing Éponine in the West End, locates the waifish pining in a superb “On My Own.” Like “I Dreamed a Dream,” this is a chanson des regrets amoureux in the French pop tradition; it could have been sung by Edith Piaf or Juliette Gréco and is suitable for intimate visual treatment.

(READ: Richard Schickel on the Piaf biopic La vie en rose)

The problem is that Hooper extends the ploy far beyond its usefulness to virtually every aria. In Valjean’s “Soliloquy” and “Who Am I?” the camera strenuously backpedals as Jackman strides toward it. His voice goes fortissimo with the songs’ emotion, as if he needs to be heard by someone in the third balcony, yet he’s nose to nose with the viewer. So many of the numbers in Les Miz have the impact of a stranger shouting in your face. That might be forgivable if the screen were of YouTube size, but this is for movie theaters. (Worst news of the month: an Imax version is planned, meaning that the screen, the faces and the aural assault will be larger still.)

(READ: Schickel’s review of the 1995 Les Misérables film)

Of course, performers in stage musicals sing live eight times a week. And most of the prominent names in this Les Miz have sung in public: Jackman in a West End revival of Oklahoma! (also directed by Nunn) and on Broadway as star of The Boy from Oz, Crowe with numerous rock bands, Seyfried as the soubrette in the Abba Mamma Mia! movie. But you know what? Singing Les Miz is hard. And some members of the cast don’t sound their best here.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Mamma Mia! movie)

Crowe, who has poured his intelligent machismo into two decades’ worth of movie roles, is surprisingly timid in his big number, “Stars”; for once you may want the volume turned up. His tentative approach to his character turns what should be a battle of titans — the saintly, suffering Valjean and his unshakable demon Javert — into a lopsided contest of star and supporting player.

(READ: Josh Tyrangel’s profile of Russell Crowe) 

Jean Valjean is a role of imperious vocal demands, which Wilkinson, who originated the role in London, conquered with a strong voice of wide, supple range. Jackman, perhaps encouraged to sell the drama of each song and not worry about the technique, throws a lot of vibrato into his solos and occasionally translates Valjean’s agony as vocal strain. For lovers of the musical, the tensest suspense comes in Valjean’s Act II “Bring Him Home,” with its two-octave stretch. Will Jackman get to that last high note without exploding? He does, but the effort registers more than the emotional effect. As so often occurs in this movie, the song has become about the singer. Viewers should be rooting for the characters, not for the actors to do their jobs well.

(READ: Lily Rothman on the vocal chops of the Les Miz stars)

The earlier movie versions of the Hugo story exploited its epic sweep, and that should be the central advantage a film of the musical has over its stage incarnation. But when Hooper pulls back for the big view, his camera style switches from mesmerized single takes to catch-as-catch-can choppiness. The barricade scenes are filled with rapid, indiscriminate vignettes of the protesters; the shots don’t build, they just pile up. The same randomness is applied to the cynical, would-be-rollicking production number “Master of the House,” at the Thénardiers’ inn; the shots of the principals and the bit players are a grab bag of gross reactions, cut with no heed to the rhythm of the music. Baron Cohen, who can be a daring movie comedian, is no help here. He turns in a sloppy interpretation, singing the first chorus with a French accent (perhaps because it contains the phrase bon viveur) before settling on a sneering English vocal stereotype.

(READ: Joel Stein’s tribute to Sacha Baron Cohen)

People near me at the Les Miz screening I attended may step forward to testify, “I saw you cry. In fact, I heard you cry.” It’s true. I’m an easy weep. I get misty at beer commercials and puppy videos and when Chris Christie talks about his love for Bruce Springsteen. I’ve sobbed the four or five times I’ve seen Les Miz on stage. And a few times during this movie, I wiped away tears. That’s my problem, and I can live with it. Tom Hooper’s problem is soiling good projects with bad direction. Even if his Les Misérables wins as many Oscars as The King’s Speech did, it’s a habit he really needs to correct.