Monday, December 17, 2012

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

When set against the experience of seeing a production of Les Misérables,Tom Hooper’s adaptation single-handedly disproves Chaplin’s notion that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Hooper is so fixated on the musical’s reputation as a tear-jerker that he has no sense for its epic sweep, and his camera is rarely more than inches from an actor’s face as he or she sings. At times, performers even lurch suddenly toward the lens in a disorientingly pop effect, a gesture of spontaneity that sometimes comes across as their way of saying, “Would you back the hell off?”

Based, of course, on Victor Hugo’s epic, social romance novel, Les Misérables is one of the few musicals ripe for the current fetish for “realism” (emphasis on the quotation marks). Hooper always makes sure each face is covered in grime just so, that the stars’ teeth are not sparkling but also not blackened like the extras or significant characters of disrepute. These details make the film seem more fake than a stage show, not less, though the camera does such a fine job of its own on that front that the relatively minor sin of aesthetically arranged grit. One might not even notice this if, again, Hooper could bear to mix up his agonizingly long close-ups with a medium or long shot that lasted more than a second.

Hooper’s awkward framing should be familiar to viewers of the John Adams miniseries, and I almost gave in to hope that the more freewheeling style afforded by the genre might give his distracting direction a stronger foothold to remotely reflect the content. But that reasoning is, of course, flawed: shoddy filmmaking on a vast scale can only be that much worse than the same lack of talent closer to the Earth. The wide-angle lenses, the haphazard editing, and the inability to ever be more than two shots away from a close-up rob nearly every song of its power by turning every performance into a mediocre music video.

And for someone who makes the camera more noticeable and prominent than any of the actors, Hooper also proves infuriatingly literal when it comes to adaptation. Some numbers feel tethered to the stage with too short a leash. Take, for example, the downturn of already low fortunes for Fantine (Anne Hathaway): on stage, the actress playing the character would necessarily have to move from a sewing job to prostitution in one movement to save time. On screen, though, the fast edits that track her descent ironically feel as if they pass in real time more than the unbroken movement of a live production. One makes allowances in suspension of disbelief for a tacitly agreed-upon pass of time in a theater, yet Fantine’s fall appears to occur within the span of, oh, about 90 minutes as Hooper presents it, turning her sad story into something more akin to self-aware comedy.

Even that cannot hold back Hathaway, however. Having already proved the most electrifying and focused aspect of the overstuffed and underwritten Dark Knight Rises, she gives an even better performance in a much worse film. She walks a balancing act as Fantine, mixing the broad naïveté and innocence necessary to give her woeful existence a shade of instant heartbreak with the believable weariness of someone with a much more realistic and frank knowledge of the world. The film peaks early with her showstopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” in which she turns Hooper’s banal style to her advantage with the tiniest shifts in her face as her wistful recollection turns slowly to full anguish. The subtleties she loads into her to-the-rafters expression also makes for the only payoff to the much-ballyhooed talk of the cast’s singing being recorded live. All the theoretical ups of this decision are displayed in her performance, where the ragged, low moan that chokes her voice attains a visceral power that elevates the gimmick from an overhyped brag of doing what stage players have done with the musical for decades now.

Sadly, no one else enjoys these benefits, and the actors’ talents are left to the mercy of the careening movement of the camera. Hugh Jackman, for example, can sing, but none of his performances convey anything of Valjean’s redemptive arc. On the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe’s dismal singing becomes oddly endearing as he goes one further than the speak-singing everyone employs and instead SHOUT!-sings every single line he has. In a film so drearily serious, a bit of accidental camp is a welcome relief, and his hilarious miscasting entertains more than any of the songs outside of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

That, fundamentally, is the film’s failing. For all Hooper’s irritating incompetence, he might be forgiven had he invested the numbers with any life. Instead, he takes bad songs like “Master of the House” to an all-new nadir and saps all of the energy out of rousing pieces like “Can You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.” As the act-ending centerpiece that collects the melodies and lyrics of most of the songs that came before, “One Day More” is the best song of the production. By virtue of collecting pieces of all of Hooper’s treatment of the other numbers, though, this version stands out as the worst disappointment of the film, its clueless cutting between groups serving only to sever the cast from each other instead of uniting them. Les Misérables climaxes with a doomed revolution, but Hooper’s isolating close-ups leave one wondering how a rebellion ever got off the ground at all.

1 comment:

  1. Well done, Jake. Totally agree with you here. The whole thing feels so claustrophobic.