Opinion: Les Miserables Is The Ugliest Blockbuster In Years
Warning: This article contains major story spoilers
Les Miserables left me feeling conflicted and annoyed.
On the one hand it has some great performances, high production values and stirring moments. On the other hand, most of these moments are squandered by lacklustre direction, disjointed editing and poor cinematography that seems intent on sabotaging the production design – and any sense of scale – by shoving the camera in actors’ faces, in what I can only assume is the misguided notion that this will make us ‘feel’ more for the characters on show.
To a degree, this approach works – but only in the most manipulative and lazy fashion possible. It’s such a bombardment of the senses that it’s hard not to be pulled into the emotions due to the sheer talent of the performances, and the proximity to those emotions – only to be later questioning why. Coming out of the darkened theatre was like sobering up after a particularly manic night out. Sure, it was fun in places: but you soon regret it, and would certainly rather forget it.
I had no connection to Les Miserables prior to seeing the film. I’ve never been to the musical or read the book on which it is based, so I went into the cinema with an open-mind and no real expectations. Whereas many people will be going into this with a love of the material and an intimate knowledge of the characters and struggles contained within, all I can comment on is what I saw as a complete newcomer.
First, the plot. Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman): a good man who is imprisoned for 5 years for stealing food for his sister and her children, and a further 19 years for escape attempts. After breaking parole he is hunted by Javert, a man intent on upholding the law to the letter even when Valjean goes onto be a respectable businessman, and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.
Valjean is haunted his whole life by Javert and the crimes he is judged to have committed, unable to escape the label of criminal even though his original crime was only to steal food to feed his family. This conflict boils down to Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javert (Russell Crowe) repeating bouts of vocal duelling in which Javert sings “you have committed a crime, you must be brought to justice” and Valjean responds with “I am a good man, my crimes are not who I am”, ad infinitum.
To be fair, I found this period adaptation of The Fugitive to be quite entertaining, even if neither character has much of an arc (with Valjean being somewhat of a saint throughout, and Javert almost comical in his mindless, stubborn pursuit).
The misfortune of Valjean carries through to the lives of the other characters we meet. Each has been mistreated by life in some respect. Fantine (Anne Hathaway) is fired from her job and has to resort to prostitution in an escalation of events so rapid it appears to assume everybody already knows her back-story, and forgoes any character development beyond “she’s poor and desperate” in order to get us to the highlight of the movie: I Dream a Dream, probably better known these days as ‘that Susan Boyle song’.
This centrepiece is one of the few moments that really rewards the close-up photography so abused in the rest of the film; partly because it is such a quiet, intimate moment that the lack of background noise makes it more personal. There are a lot of things right about this scene and it works through the sheer strength of Anne Hathaway’s performance alone. The cinematography complements the performance and the moment, rather than hindering it as it does elsewhere.
For the remainder of the film, however, that same technique is used again and again with less and less success, as if director Tom Hooper saw how well that scene worked in the edit and then tried to recreate it. It leaves you feeling like Hooper only grasped the vision for the movie in the editing room, and by then it was too late to have the right pieces for the puzzle.
So, instead of the raw performances and emotion being complemented by creative and diverse camerawork, we get shot after shot of lazy steady-cam because, y’know, humans can relate to human faces. It’s like this film was directed by a computer algorithm for manipulating emotions, and this is what it spat out.
After the highlight of I Dream a Dream, the film never really reaches those lofty heights of audience manipulation again. Fantine passes away from a mysterious illness (possibly the same one as Padme in Star Wars?), because the plot demands it, and we meet her young daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen) – orphaned and left in the hands of scheming criminal couple, the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).
These characters introduce some levity to the proceedings, and their number ‘Master of the House’ was my favourite part of the film. But again, the production design and choreography are let down by sloppy direction, full of Dutch angles (making this feel like a Joel Schumacher production) and endless close-ups; with characters disappearing and appearing again with no sense of space or flow.
Cosette is soon taken in by Valjean, who provides her a new life and finds strength through his love for her. Skip ahead a few years and Cosette is a beautiful young woman (Amanda Seyfried), there is revolution in the air and young student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) falls for Cosette after seeing her across a crowded street.
This romance, based on a single glance and one brief conversation, makes Twilight look like Casablanca. It also turns out Marius is a massive douche – and he, alongside this weak romance, was the reason that this portion of the film outright failed to keep me interested. Make no mistake, however: the biggest crime of Les Miserables lies in its dreadful visual and technical decisions.
Cinema opens up so many new ways to tell this story, yet all Tom Hooper could come up with was this? I have to say, it’s possibly the ugliest blockbuster release in years.
I’ve heard mention that the choice to have the film presented mostly in close-up was made in post, and that it wasn’t shot with this in mind. If this is true, it shows all-too painfully in the final edit. I can imagine a film in which only closes-up are used to great affect, but this is not it.
In the end, I really wanted to enjoy Les Miserables. There are some good to great performances, and it has many of the right elements for a successful movie musical – but I felt that the direction actually robbed me of that enjoyment.
This either needed to be a more creatively and competently directed broad musical, or something more low-key that contained more context for characters outside of their musical numbers. In the end, however, it comes across as a film at the opposite end of the fuck-up spectrum to Prometheus.
Whereas Prometheus was technically accomplished but lacked humanity or consistent characters, Les Miserables has great performances – but lacks the creative or technically competent filmmaking needed to make it a truly great movie.