Rating:In 1990, director John Maybury directed what would become one of the most influential music videos of all time. Shot mostly in Paris, Maybury recorded his subject in a tight close-up, his camera lingering on her face as she lip-synched, emoting anger that eventually gave way to tears. Although Maybury threw in some interstitial shots of the singer wandering through Parc Saint-Cloud, the up-close and personal feel and our inability to escape these wayward emotions made the video a rousing success. This was Sinéad O’Connor, the song “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Now take a look at Anne Hathaway’s big scene in Les Misérables, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical that turned Victor Hugo’s novel into a major cultural touchstone of the 20th century. It occurs when Hathaway’s Fantine, in a moment of absolute desperation, bursts into “I Dreamed a Dream.” Hooper holds his camera tight on Hathaway’s face. Her head is shorn, having sold her hair and some teeth to pay lodging for her child now that she has been sacked from her job. As the thin, nearly bald Fantine sings, tears begin to stream down her face. We’ve been here before.
And therein lies the problem that sinks this filmic version of Les Misérables. It’s not the melodramatic songs (you go in expecting that sort of flair) or the equally flat performances from leads Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe (as Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert respectively), but Hooper’s decision to shoot most of the film in tight close-up as the actors sing. This decision robs Les Misérables of the very thing that made the play such a success: it’s a spectacle without the aspects that make it a spectacle.
After nearly three hours of near lock-down, the mind begins to wander and a grave sense of ennui sets in. At least in the staged version, there is some cool shit to look at. But here we can examine the moles on Crowe’s face or how the drastic weight loss affected Hathaway’s cheeks. And when this occurs, the limitations of the source material become even more apparent.
Many of Hooper’s decisions actually serve to diminish the goldmine he has been handed with a tried and tested libretto. The film opens with a sweeping chain gang scene where Valjean is given his freedom after 19 years of imprisonment for stealing some bread for his starving family. It is an extremely fake opening loaded with CGI that makes it feel like something out of Clash of the Titans rather than a Broadway show. It is also meant to establish the intrinsic bond between Valjean and the obsessive Javert, one that Crowe is incapable of making us believe.
Which brings me back to Hathaway and “I Dreamed a Dream.” After death carries away the poor Fantine quite early in the film, there is no one who can replicate the emotional pull of her unfortunate character and show-stopping song. Jackman and Crowe are too busy looking serious. Amanda Seyfried as Cosette is nothing more than a gossamer thin beauty who is impossible to care about. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are actually somewhat lifeless as the comedic Thénardiers. “Master of the House” should have been rousingly funny. Instead we get Carter doing her late-career, grotesque Tim Burton thing and Santa Claus fucking a whore.
Les Misérables could have succeeded, but Hooper’s decisions from the cast to obscuring production designer Eve Stewart’s 19th century France stop the movie dead in its tracks. Maybe Hooper wanted to present an intimate Les Misérables, one that puts you there in the melodrama. But just like Peter Jackson’s recent The Hobbit, a front row seat isn’t something we’re clamoring for in a big, sweeping movie. Sometimes, the balcony seat is the one with the clearest view.