Miserable at Les Mis

The cinematic adaptation of the broadway play doesn't live up to the hype.


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When Les Misérables first lumbered onto the Broadway stage in 1987, my daughter had not yet been born, but its theatrical life was so robust that it was still running strong in the 1990s when she achieved sentiency. As soon as she did, she glommed onto it with the fervor only a pre-adolescent can have for things she loves. The songs were played endlessly in the house and in the car, and all manner of professional and amateur productions were attended. She would burst at unexpected moments into renditions of “Master of the House,” and “ Do You Hear the People Sing?” — the first with a perfect cockney accent imitated from the CD.

I had plowed through Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables, in college — impressed by the panache with which Hugo concocted the plot in defiance of logic and common sense. I felt I understood the famous response of André Gide when asked to name the greatest French poet: “Victor Hugo, hélas!” he said. Hugo, like Dickens, though without Dickens’ sublime humor, was a genius. You take him on his own terms or not at all. And with a 9-year-old piping the tunes of Les Mis all over the house, how could I not take him in his maudlin musical incarnation as well.

Thus, when the movie, rumored to have been in production from the late 1980s, finally opened this week, directed by Tom Hooper with a screenplay by William Nicholson, it was inevitable that my daughter and I go to see it. Both of us had high hopes for some rousing musical numbers, not to mention a good cry. I found myself humming “Castle on a Cloud” in anticipation.

We arrived early and settled into our stadium seats at the Loews in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, watching as assorted New Jerseyans filed in with their jumbo containers of popcorn. The movie was attracting the populace — rightly so, since it was about the populace, wasn’t it? I can’t say that I exactly remembered the plot, except that it had something to do with the French Revolution — or one of those disastrous mini-revolutions that followed from it. The historical aspect had always seemed to me muddled, but Les Mis was a musical, not an historical re-creation, and the period costumes, high-profile cast, and wonderful music promised to be great fodder for cinematic rethinking.

We sat patiently through the interminable movie previews. There’s nothing like a dozen previews, culling the maximum in visual excitement from their respective movies, to blunt anticipation for a feature film. But we remained eager. We knew Hugh Jackman, playing Jean Valjean, had a voice — he was a Broadway musical star as well as a rom-com heartthrob. We were fans of Russell Crowe, and liked that he was deviating from type to take on the role of the relentless officer of the law, Inspector Javert. And we knew that Anne Hathaway — the publicity didn’t cease to remind us — had sacrificed her hair for the part of Fantine. She’d been great as the angst-ridden sister in Rachel Getting Married; how could she miss as the soulful, ill-fated mother of Cosette?

Yet as soon as the film began it was clear that we were going to be disappointed. I should note here that I don’t usually take pleasure in finding fault with movies. I know from personal experience that lots of energy, creativity, and expense goes into their making, and I know what it feels like to be eviscerated by critics. But in this instance I am going to indulge myself. The movie is such a stunning exercise in bad judgment that it cries out to be slapped around. It is spectacularly miscast, misdirected, mis-shot, mis-everythinged. Such consistent wrong-headedness might have resulted in something that we used to call “camp” — an audacious, mesmerizing badness. But the film doesn’t even manage this. It is dull, it is tasteless, it is a waste of talent and money. Its sole redeeming quality is that it offers ample opportunity to say why it is bad. I am spurred to assume this task because the film has won awards and gotten moderately good press. I feel the need to set the record straight, possibly owing to the musical’s association with my daughter’s childhood. A mother’s sentimental attachment betrayed requires revenge.

As the movie opens, Jackman’s Jean Valjean launches into his first song, “Look Down.” Battered, shorn, and un-Jackman-like, he is pulling a rope alongside lines of other convicts with whom he has been consigned for 19 years of slave labor for stealing a loaf of bread (you better know this at the outset because the fact is not easy to pluck from the clutter of the movie’s business). “Look Down” isn’t one of the better songs in the musical, but it doesn’t deserve to be so shabbily treated, its somber power lost in the alternation between the convicts in close-up singing and the ship’s hull of disproportionate size, an obviously computer-generated image, that they are supposed to be hauling, though there is no evidence of movement. This could have been a stage set with back projection, if it weren’t for the close-ups. As we try to get our bearings, the song devolves into talk-sing. Les Mis is a quasi-operetta, so I should have been prepared, but the effect in the movie, unlike the stage musical, seems foolish — perhaps it’s those close-ups. The characters continue to intone musical phrases for a prolonged interval until they unaccountably switch into normal speech.

But my daughter and I were still hopeful when the movie arrived at the scene in which Valjean steals the silver from the bishop who offers him refuge. This is a neat scene — I remember liking it in the book as well. But the movie manages to remove the drama — even the silver looks tinny. It turns out that Colm Wilkinson, who plays the bishop, was Jean Valjean in the original stage production. He doesn’t have the face of a gentle, ascetic cleric but looks more like, well, an ex-convict. Much better would have been to have the more pristine Jackman in the role of the bishop, and a fleshier, more textured-looking actor (Wilkinson 20 years younger) as Valjean. The miscasting of the scene brings to the fore the mistaken casting throughout. Despite our high hopes, it soon becomes clear that Russell Crowe is not just bad in the role of Javert, he is abysmally, embarrassingly bad. His particular brand of rough manliness is entirely at odds with the allegorical simplicity needed for the law-obsessed inspector. Once again, I could see him switching roles with Jackman to better effect, if only he could sing. That Crowe’s singing is weak is the least of his problems. His mouth is surprisingly small, and he can’t open it wide enough for the sort of dramatic expressiveness that the character requires.

I know that the producers made the decision to record the sound as it was sung, rather than recording in a sound stage and dubbing afterward, but they erred in doing so and not just with Crowe. All the sustained notes sounded pitchy (to adopt Randy Jackson’s term on American Idol). Even Jackman struck me as being off-key. I would have assumed that the problem lay with my ear, but my daughter whispered confirmation, and she is a reliable source, having listened to the CD maybe a 100 times.

Anne Hathaway, much touted for her performance as Fantine, did not fare much better in my opinion. I couldn’t concentrate on her voice owing to the distraction of her mangled scalp when she sings “I Dreamed a Dream.” And I couldn’t help feeling we were in the presence of that Hollywood edict: a foxy actress who chooses to go ugly must be extravagantly congratulated for her talent. Hathaway’s hatched-chick look was made all the more Oscar-worthy by the fact that she was shown almost continually in grimacing close-up.

And this brings us to one of the biggest problems with the film’s direction — its irritating devotion to the close-up. When a novel or a play is adapted to the screen, the issue becomes: How to make it cinematic? There are many answers to this question, but the most simple-minded involves the facial close-up. Judicious use of the close-up is, of course, central to what makes film the medium it is. But when the close-up becomes the modus-operandi for the film’s representation of character and rendering of drama, especially when it is a musical of panoramic scope, it just seems lazy. A prolonged nostril shot of someone singing doesn’t make the music soar. And this is especially true when the close-ups are of unbeautiful people. Yes, these actors are, by all accounts, beautiful — or at least they have been air-bushed in various roles to appear so. But in this movie, where the camera fixes on them for prolonged periods as they sing, slightly off key, their nose hairs, moles, scrungy sideburns, and freckles make them hard to warm up to. Not one of these actors, including the knockout Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, can withstand the camera’s relentless, unaesthetic gaze. That poor girl, who in other films sports a charming mole on her cheek, looks here like she has a nasty pimple. Her wide blue eyes have a hyperthyroid bugginess owing to some mixture of the make-up and the need for her to be continually in a state of insufficiently motivated wonder. Marius (Eddie Redmayne), the object of her affections, fares even worse. He is, let’s face it, not the most attractive young man. I wouldn’t bring this up but Cosette is supposed to fall madly in love with him at first sight. This means he should have something dashing and handsome about him. Instead, he looks like the best a high school production could come up when only the most flagrantly gay or most profoundly untalented of the boys try out.

The problem of the close-up leads directly into other esthetic issues. Teeth, for example. Every other rendering of human anatomy may be a trick of the lens or of make-up, but one thing we know is that Hollywood people have good teeth. They’ve all been capped and crowned, brightened and whitened. But here, for the sake of some sort of ill-judged realism, the teeth have been sacrificed. Jean Valjean and Fantine both have bad teeth early in the film, and the adorable Gavroche, the only character with genuine charisma in the entire production, is given a brownish front tooth that jars with every other facet of his cuddly, cherubic demeanor. A brown tooth on stage, yes. A brown tooth in a movie obsessed with close-ups, no. Compare, moreover, the gratuitousness of the teeth in this film to the teeth in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. When Leonardo DiCaprio’s unctuous Southern gentleman brings his cigarette holder to his lips, we see that his teeth are darkly stained — a wonderful expression of the rottenness at his core. In Les Mis, the bad teeth do not serve a purpose. If it was realism that the filmmaker was after, then how to explain that Jean Valjean went from brown to pearly white once he had climbed the social ladder. Were dentists really that good back in early 19th century France?

Then, there’s the hair. Marius, despite his days and nights at the barricades, looks like he’s deep into styling mousse. Fantine and Jean Valjean both have scenes where their scalps are on display to unprepossessing effect, though both grow out their hair quite nicely. Fantine ends with a perfect pixie cut, and Valjean with a curly, sideburny coiffure that gives him a Mr. Darcy look. His appearance is particularly intriguing when, at one point, he enters the room, his shirt unbuttoned, as his now-grown adopted daughter Cosette is standing by the window. I muse hopefully: Is there going to be a quasi-incestuous flirtation inserted? No such luck.

Cut to the sewer scene, where my daughter and I were united in our discomfort. I like a good dung-dunking as much as the next guy. In Slumdog Millionaire when the hero plunges into the excrement in order to exit the outhouse and emerges covered in shit is an exuberant and funny moment. But in Les Mis, Jean Valjean descends into the sewers for a serious, dramatic purpose. He knows this underground labyrinth owing to his former life on the run, and he is helping Marius escape, despite knowing that the young man is destined to usurp him with his cherished Cosette. None of this is communicated in the movie. Instead, we get Valjean pulling Marius through what looks like plain old diarrhea. You just think ick. Speaking of ick — it seems equally unseemly when we hear a loud thwack when Javert finally throws himself into the swirling turbulence of the Seine.

Plot-wise Les Misérables has never pretended to make much sense, but one aim of both the book and the Broadway musical is to disguise this — to place a romantic haze over the story so that sentiment trumps logic. The problem with the movie is that it not only fails to produce the necessary illusion, it underlines the illogic. This is partially the result of the way movies force us to see. Words are more abstract than visuals and can more easily cover for inconsistencies. And theater, by definition, can’t do smooth transitions or realistic renderings, so we don’t expect them. But movies foster a sense of realism and thus have to take more care in what they show and how they show it. But Les Misérables seems blithely unaware of this responsibility. The director moves from scene to scene as though coherence and logic were of absolutely no consequence. The downtrodden poor, for example, are supposed to be a source of sympathy — the whole story turns on this idea. But there are also a cadre of “bad” poor whom we are supposed to hate unequivocally. It seems the bad poor have tangled hair and lots of eye make-up while the good poor have access to hairbrushes but not to cosmetics. Then, following the death of Marius’s comrades at the barricades, the good poor are forgotten as he proceeds to happily marry Cosette in his father’s palace. Servants (good poor in livery?) proffer champagne and stand ready to evict the bad poor, who make an appearance in order to impart useful information to Marius about who saved his life. Cry for the dead patriots, their bodies arranged in a row, but then enjoy the opulence of the lone survivor’s wedding. Everything we are supposed to feel is situational in the movie, and we are expected to switch allegiances from scene to scene. Perhaps the filmmaker assumed that we had been trained to handle this sort of thing by the current political discourse, in which universal health care is decried as Socialism at one moment, and Medicare and Social Security are elevated as sacred rights the next.

Finally, there’s the music, not an inconsequential factor in a movie that happens to be a musical. I could never feel its power. I don’t know whether this was because of the disconcerting close-ups, the mediocre voices of the cast, or the chopping up of the tunes (owing in part to the way they were recorded). Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, the farcically villainous inn-keeper and his wife, are hard to waste, but when they sing one of my favorite songs, “Master of the House,” the melody and lyrics are lost in an excess of broad, but not particularly funny, business. Another great song, “Little People,” is omitted, outside of a few bars scattered here and there — this, despite the fact that the one brilliant casting choice, Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, would have sung it.

My daughter and I had given way to uncontrolled giggles during the death scene of Jean Valjean. The poor guy just wouldn’t die, but droned on and on in enervating talk-sing, surrounded by the ungainly trinity of Hathaway, Seyfried, and the mousse-haired Eddie Redmayne. Our muffled laughter seemed to find an echo in the two people on either side of us, though when the lights finally came up, we realized that they were sobbing. It was a revelatory moment. How could our response be so at odds with that of others in the theater, a good number of whom applauded as the credits rolled? I was and continue to be mystified. “You failed to suspend your disbelief,” I was told by a friend who loved the film. But I protest this conclusion. I can suspend disbelief; I just can’t suspend esthetic belief. • 4 January 2013


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.