Movie Review: Les Miserables- Tom Hooper’s Incredibly Ambitious Adaptation is as Overwhelming in Emotion as it is Remarkable in Technicality

lesmis2Director Tom Hooper didn’t seem as though he’d be a glutton for punishment just judging by his previous limited filmography history that only includes the underrated The Damned United and his Academy Award winning film The King’s Speech. However, once he chose to take on the beloved work of “Les Miserables” in its full musical form you knew he had decided to push his technical prowess and his sanity limits. Any fair weather movie goer should be forewarned that Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables is a constant barrage of musical virtuosity and misery that is emotionally overwhelming, technically dizzying, and conflictingly inspiring and that is to be meant in the most positive way possible. Because of its unrelenting musical delivery and cinematic camera weaving the film tends to be draining beyond just the emotional connection to the plight of the characters. There is no doubt that Les Miserables is deeply impressive but it’s equally divisive for audiences who might be taken back by its completely raw and gritty atmosphere. Seeing the misery on the stage is one thing because it’s distant but the unforgiving close ups Tom Hooper demands fully immerses you in a dirty, heart wrenching world. It’s a film that is at times a bit too loud in its sentimentalities though its marveling technical acrobatics and ingenious method of capturing live music is undeniably mesmerizing. While there could have been some more ideal casting changes (Russell Crowe as a monotone Javert comes to mind) everyone from the magnificent Hugh Jackman to the powerhouse performance of Anne Hathaway deliver their tunes emphatically in a rare mixture of song mixed with diverse live emotional reactions and breakdowns. Les Miserables is a lot to take in emotionally and cinematically almost to the point of exhaustion but Tom Hooper proves here that ambition in the face of a familiar piece of work is what it takes to make it new again.

Many are familiar with the basic tale that is Les Miserables and the musical won’t let you forget it as it constantly reminds you of our conflicted protagonist Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and his 19 year suffering under the law for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean makes parole though he is constantly followed by the law of Javert (Russell Crowe) and his past eventually receiving an act of kindness that allows him to make a new life of hard work, virtue, but most of all peace at least for a little while. Years later he is discovered by the suspicious Javert as Valjean makes a run again but this time bringing along the young daughter Cosette of an ex-employee named Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who he promised the fulfillment of a debt. The rest of the film is set in the background of the June Rebellion in France leading to each character’s concluding arches such as Valjean’s redemption, Cosette’s and Marius’ tumultuous barricade to each other, Eponine’s unrequited love, and Javert’s conflicted sense of honor. All of the exposition is told lyrically and rarely through action making Les Miserables less of a musical and more of an opera. While this unrelenting musicality could be tiring on your ears and inevitably dilute some of the impact, such as a good 30 minutes post-two hour mark, a majority of the film is delivered successfully through the medium of song. Choosing to capture the music live was a risky creative task but ultimately it pays off in accentuating every tidal wave of sweeping emotion, whether it’s exasperated shame or dying revelation. Hearing the elocution through pained utterances brings a new approach to the material that is raw and while uneasy demonstrates a great handle of the emotion. At times the continuous music occasionally diminishes the full impact only because there is no let up or a break to allow a cleansing of the musical pallet. However, this picky criticism is based on a mere single viewing from a movie that requires multiple viewings to fully grasp its intended and unique delivery that is all guided by Tom Hooper’s incredible use of the technical medium of cinema.

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It must have been easy for Tom Hooper to convince cinematographer Danny Cohen since they had collaborated on the “John Adams” mini-series as well as Hooper’s last film The King’s Speech. But the task Cohen had in front of him to arrange the sweeping movements, the elaborate close ups, and the capturing of live singing must have been an excruciating planning process. Apparently there were numerous scenes where the actors didn’t even know where the multiple cameras were on the sets as they acted and sang their hearts out while the opposite was true for solo performances as the camera moves painstakingly closer and closer to each actor’s face. Sometimes the close ups don’t work for the intended advantage as Tom Hooper’s obsession with off centered images becomes distracting rather than heightening the experience. The sweeping camera movements, either the giant awe inspiring opening shot of the slaves pulling a ship or the low angled following of Gravoche through the streets of Paris, are usually elegant but sometimes it becomes a bit overwhelming and dizzying. Visually it’s both the best collaborative effort between Tom Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen seeing as how it balances moving elegance and close up gritty realism. These uncomfortable or unconventional filmmaking tactics could easily put actors off their usual rhythm and that challenge might be a reason why the performances are so riveting to watch.

After serious contemplation it should be noted that as a whole the cast works extremely well despite the films incredibly loud melodramatic tone. They all are able to explore their more unhinged dramatic displays, especially Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, while also keeping you connected. Truth is that some of the performances are a bit questionable even if their voices are beautiful and complimentary to the film. Both Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne sing quite well but their acting gives a little pause if only for the convenience of the songs to announce their love though it still seems incredibly circumstantial. Russell Crowe is the opposite as he controls his acting tightly but seems a bit strained in his vocals especially as Javert who usually is portrayed by someone with a deep and powerful voice. Crowe is at least consistent (unlike say Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd) just leaving a question as to whether they could have found someone better. Of course Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide a breather from seriousness as the Master of the House and Madame Thernadier respectively. But the true powerhouse performances come from three actors, including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Samantha Barks. Each of them takes full advantage of their solos and put all of their souls into conveying their lyrics for a greater impact leaving you completely helpless in their ballads. They emit pain and sorrow through the beauty of song that is unique and if it weren’t for their dedication Les Miserables would have been an overly budgeted, melodramatic mess of a musical film.

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Les Miserables will no doubt be the most divisive film this year if only because of its theatrically cinematic style and bombardment of sorrow through song that can leave most in tears but some in overwhelmed exhaustion. No matter which emotion you come out of the film with just shows how powerful of an experience Tom Hooper has constructed through his ingenious experimentation. The unrelenting barrage of musicality might be emotionally draining, which at times makes the film seem flat but that’s due to feeling too much emotion rather than no emotion. You’re confronting all of the sadness in the musical at close up range so escape is nowhere to be found either from the music, the tone of misery, or Tom Hooper’s additional barrage of cinematic acrobatics. Les Miserables is a project born of ambition and delivered mostly well with one or two questionable casting choices and a running time that could have been cut by about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a film that is difficult to describe especially on how divisive it has been for audiences and just how prodigious it is in its creative delivery but it’s also a film that can only really be experienced to fully understand it.

Grade: B+

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One Response to “Movie Review: Les Miserables- Tom Hooper’s Incredibly Ambitious Adaptation is as Overwhelming in Emotion as it is Remarkable in Technicality”
  1. Hey.. Good review! Would you check out my blog? I review movies as well. Thanks! http://www.benlanesreviews.wordpress.com

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